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June 13, 2005

Contract Wimp


I was offered a contract this week. Actually, I was offered two. After a year of writing “on spec” as we say in Hollywood, that was pretty exciting news. It’s not that I made no money this past year; there were those first two books, and I still get residuals for the acting work I did in my previous life (another six bucks for that 1986 Highway to Heaven episode) but it’s safe to assume that I spent a lot more than I took in. Would that I could say the same about calories.

So, when I sold a short story to Ms. Magazine, and was offered a two-book deal from Doubleday on the same day, I called my husband at work to tell him the good news. “Great!” he said. “How much?”

I told him.

Silence on the other end of the phone.

I could hear him mentally dividing the book advance by two (two books in two years), then subract taxes and agent’s fee, then add up babysitting costs, marketing and promotion . . . “Can you ask for more?” he asks.

Well, no. I’ve never asked for a raise in my life. Why would I? Anyone who’s known me for five minutes knows I’d work for free. That’s not a great negotiating position. I’d ask for the raise, they’d say no, and I’d say okay. What’s the point of that?

And anyway, it’s a fair offer. I’d be making somewhere between what I made waiting tables at Village Inn Pancake House when I was seventeen, and what I made as a film actress, fifteen years later. It’s four times what my big sister made when she got out of law school and got her first job at Legal Aid. It’s more
than my mom ever made, after 20 years as a full professor at a university. It’s fourteen times less than what I made for the last commercial I did, for American Express. In the olden days. Before children and wrinkles.

But that boat has sailed. It pulled out of the harbor when I got pregnant with my first child and was asked to sit out the TV series I was in. Having children changed my career trajectory, from actor to writer, and I feel lucky. Reduced income is a small price to pay for getting to wake up with the kids and put them to bed at night, to have a commute that consists of walking across the room and turning on the computer.  Getting to work without makeup.

The only thing is, my husband would like some company in this thing he does called supporting the family. I’d like to keep him company. Instead, I’m a sponge. Charlaine Harris, who does very well with her vampire books, says her husband calls her writing “a heavily subsidized hobby” something I wish I'd
thought of. Do I like living off my husband? Heck, no. I’ve been going dutch since my first high school date. At 22, I discovered Simone de Beauvoir. At 33, I bought myself a house. A woman should have money and a room of her own.

But I’ve chosen a life in art. If my goal were money, I would’ve invented computers/run Halliburton/owned MacDonalds. My feeling is, when I sell more books they’ll pay me more money. My husband’s feeling is, let’s find what Dan Brown makes and ask for that.

It seems there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think contract negotiations are fun, and those of us who’d rather go through childbirth a few more times. My husband, who’s in the fun group, tends not to care what people think. Especially a bunch of strangers. I admire this, I, who will sign on with anyone who says, “We like you. We really like you.” I’m the kid at the orphanage sitting on my suitcase, ready to jump in the car of the first family who shows up on Adoption Day. Even if it’s the Manson Family.

Do I have self-esteem issues? Could I use therapy? No doubt. But therapy was part of my bachelorette years and now I’m waiting until they offer it at Costco.

In the great spirit of compromise, I finally did a conference call with my husband and my agent and then I put my phone on “mute” so my husband and my agent wouldn’t have to listen to the kids in the background, and I let them discuss my life and career while I did the dishes and Simone de Beauvoir rolled over in her grave.

And I got a raise. I’m not making what Dan Brown makes, but I’m happy nevertheless (of course, I was happy before the raise) and my husband is happy, not because the raise is big, but because he’s a happy guy, and also, I suspect, because he’s figured out that if I write twice as fast, the money would,
in effect, be twice as much.

He’s looking over my shoulder as I write this, saying, “Is that the book? What chapter are you on? Are you done yet?”

Well, no. Honey, I hope you don’t read this. The book’s on page 2.

Happy Monday!
Harley Jane Kozak


Harley, you're in the tough years---multiple small children, just a couple of books launched into the world, still learning how to write lots of pages in one sitting, feeling the pressure from the "working spouse." This book biz is a slow build. At least, that's what everyone keeps telling me....after 25 years of writing books. You're doing the right thing--concentrating on the next book. Let your agent, your editor, your publisher work on the other stuff. What we control is the quality of our work.

I once heard Kurt Vonnegut speak in a college auditorium sparsely filled with students who'd been required to attend a hour's session with a writer they'd never heard of. As the questions from his audience grew increasingly innane, Vonnegut became more & more irritated. Then one kid finally got up and asked him for his "best advice for new writers." Vonnegut leaned into the microphone and snarled, "Marry well."

I still feel as if a supportive spouse can be one of the best gadgets in a writer's tool box.

Congrats on the new contract! I, for one, can't wait to read the next book. (So hurry up!) Do you have a title yet??


Ah, Harley... The truth is, you write beautifully with wonderful humor, a rare and lovely combination. Those of us who sit around waiting for your next book to give us a reason to laugh while we face our next personal saga think you are worth the piles of money your husband does. And hopefully, we readers can continue to spread the word till one of these days the publisher comes with a substantial advance and the hope you won't take your large audience and profits somewhere else.
Thanks for being willing to write for nothing when your books are worth everything...

Congratulations on the contract! That's exciting, and while it may not be on the Dan Brown level, you've got a publisher who's willing to make that commitment to you and your work. Obviously they believe you'll do well (because, hell, it's all about profits, isn't it?)

My agent keeps telling me about "building" a career, and because my advances were pretty small and my husband's salary isn't much more than mine, I'm still toiling away at my day job and grabbing an hour here and there to write in between my daughter's swim lessons, violin lessons and whatnot. It's not easy, this writing gig, but it's better than not doing it at all!


hold on, hold on. I have an idea what Harley's contract is about and I think it's pretty damn good! Of course, maybe I'm used to reporter's salaries which pale in comparison to the real world. So let's applaud the dear girl. She's headed straight to the top!

Harley - Happy Monday indeed! From one wimp to another I say the 3 C's - Congratulations, Celebrate and (the big one here to close) CHOCOLATE!!!!
Cathie Linz

I think anything you enjoy doing that pays you money works for me! My hubby would be like yours in the Can't you ask for more category. I've been at home with my boys for almost 17 years. Now in that time I went through a clinical depression after losing my youngest son (and finding out his disease was genetic so more kids were not the best idea), my grandma and my mom w/in 12 months time. I was a 'functional' depressive. I still got the kids fed, attended the PTA meetings, volunteered......it just wasn't as joyful as pre-trauma. Now my husband would love me to find something that pays me money......I'm still raising my boys and volunteering.........my problem? I have no clue what I want to be when I grow up! So hubby will just have to be patient for a little longer......

Congrats on the contract! Dan Brown didn't make that much money before The DaVinci code hit it big, you'll catch up. LOL.

Harley, the Book Tarts salute you (as you know), and I really think Nancy needs to whip up a party for, oh, say, a few hundred folks and lots of Moet to celebrate.


A two book contract? That's great news! Now I can look forward to two more books from you! (And maybe I need to make sure I get the second book read.)

Party? Darlings, I have the sushi ordered and the champagne on ice. Gives me an excuse to try one of those champagne fountains. (I could use some new glassware, anyway.) All we need is a babysitter for Harley's kids and a date for Susan.

So, Harley, I've got a good story for you.

Remember Malice, when you won best first--and I didn't ?

Well, I got back to New Mexico after a long, long flight and expected my husband to be sympathetic. Instead, we got into a conversation about money and my life as an author. Within 24 hours after my return, he'd developed a spread sheet showing how much money I'm losing by picking this profession. When I told him his timing was lousy, he said, "I'm not trying to upset you. It's about volume. You've got to have a lot more product."

I think he thought that would inspire me.

But life intrudes on this whole product concept. For example, I just got back from the Sisters in Crime LA mystery writers conference "No Crime Unpublished." Within less than five hours, one of my children got the stomach flu and threw up all over her top bunk bed. Because my hubby has a job interview this morning, we moved my daughter's mattress into a different bedroom and I "slept" in the room with her. Every time she moved, I sat up, heart pounding, waiting for that terrible coughing sound every parent fears . . .

Product, schmoduct. I can barely type this.

Now, my poor sweetie is asking for grape juice. Personally, I'd like something stronger.


Pari, you're joking about the spread sheet, right? Telling a lovely, self-deprecating joke on yourself? Having a little fun at your husband's expense? I hope so. And I hope your daughter feels better soon.

I blundered into supporting myself. Along the way, I kind of blundered out of having children. There was not a lot of conscious thought to what I did in my 30s, across the board. But it's never seemed healthy to me (much less fair) that the crime-writing community's female writers seemed to fall into two camps -- those with grown children, those with no children. (Okay, and it's not healthy that it's an overwhelmingly white field, either.) My hat's off to every mother of young children who's also writing novels, and I think the field has been enriched by you all.

You know, if Malice Domestic really wanted to change the world, it would offer a baby-sitting grant. In fact, if I ever have the scratch, I'm going to endow it: One year, three afternoons a week, for a woman with children under 6 and a promising work-in-progress.

But then, I don't like contract negotiations, either, so I don't know how this is going to happen. Took me seven books to quit my day job -- and it's cheap where I live.

Laura (TLC lurker heretofore)

Here is a subject near to my heart - writing and young families. I, too, started out writing when my kids were young and I had a couple of tricks up my sleeve to fake out myself to make sure the book got finished and I could quit my day job. I owe an awful lot to Janet Evanovich and I'll blog about it tomorrow. (Be sure and check back.)
Where were you women when I was dealing with all of this years ago?
Spreadsheet? I think not.
Sarah S

It's nice to hear about professional moms who love being moms.

I'm a private investigator with three young boys. In fact, I just took them with me on a case. They make excellent cover. ;-)

Honestly, I don't know how you all do it, being wives and moms and volunteers and writing novels (and blogging!). I would've turned into a puddle on the kitchen floor by now if I had all that to worry about, besides just writing books, promoting them, and having a half-decent real-life besides. You guys rock. You really do.

The other real lesson here, however, is that women tend to be so conflict-averse that they leave money on the table. It is easy to blame women's lower earnings on child rearing choices, but the fact is that women just don't demand higher salaries when they interview for jobs. Talking to recruiters, they will tell you that even women graduating from business school will usually not ask for more than is offered. Men ask for the extra $5-10,000 and usually get it. And that establishes a base value for a career.

The publishers lowballed Harley, she didn't call them on it, but her husband did. Sure it's a nice story and all, but stuff like this is why corporate America feels justified in offering women less money for the same work as men.

I'm right there with you, currently about to negotiate my second contract.

The problem is threefold:

1. I consider myself damn lucky to be in this business, when many other authors are struggling to find an agent or sell a book.

2. I worked so hard to get where I'm at, that getting paid anything at all is like a dream come true.

3. Compared to many of my published friends, I'm already overpaid. But I'm not overpaid enough that my wife can quit her job, or that I can buy a new car... or even a used car.

A thriller writer friend of mine who makes more than five times what I make per book once gave me a lecture about how I have to treat my writing like a product that can earn X amount of dollars.

I have a hard time with that, because I write because I love it, and how can I put a price on something that I'd do for free?

Which is why I'm leaving the negotiating to my agent.

Congratulations, Harley!

I, too, am a write-at-home mother. My daughter is now five, so it's somewhat easier to fit everything that needs to be done on a given day into that day, but I can remember a time when I wrote an entire novel while breastfeeding on the left side. Not in one session, of course.

It's no fun being the writer AND the "working spouse" as well, either.

Congrats Harley from a fellow Sister in Crime member. It inspires me to hear good news from writers. It makes me continue with my dream to find an agent and a publishing deal.

in today's ridiculous publishing world, sweets, a two book contract is gold. Pat Greg on the head and tell him "there there sweetie", when he wants you to get Dan Brown money. "It's a writer thing, you wouldn't understand". No no no, of course don't say that but you KNOW I've met lots of writers. Many have mega-supportive spouses/partners who get it and say, no matter what "you're fabulous, you rock honey, they should pay you more" and then there are the ones with partners/spouses/families who want to know WHY you can't answer the phone during the day when you're writing. It's just a hobby and well, you are HOME after all so you can't be WORKING, right? And the ones with partners/spouses who've never read a word they've written (some are of the "you rock" variety and some are of the "where's dinner" variety).
Six whole dollars in residuals from that tv episode huh? Gosh, you had SUCH a glamorous past, sweetie!

I just found this blog! Funny and inspiring, especially since I'm a mom to a 5 year old daughter (HOME WITH ME FOR THE SUMMER! Help!) and I'm a writer...ish. I've written many short stories but nothing I want to stick with long enough to turn into a novel. And I know, I know, short stories don't SELL... but I'm not even THERE yet! I'm still wondering if I should apply to an MFA program for fiction writing. Have any of you done that? Pros? Cons?

And, hey, while I'm asking for advice...wanna give me direct access to your agents and editors, cuz a two-book contract, even a MEDIOCRE two-book contract, sounds IMPOSSIBLE to me right now!

Thanks for the chuckles on this blog, though, ladies!

Cheers, A. Marie

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