Wednesday, December 16, 2015

All Good Things...

I'm borrowing a title from one of my favorite Star Trek episodes (taken from a Chaucer quotation originally) to lead off because I can't think of a better way to begin this bittersweet post.

Ten years ago (give or take), a gentleman by the name of Marty Greenberg called me at home. Marty, if you don't already know, was an amazing guy and a big personality in the publishing world. Back then, he headed up Tekno Books, a book packaging company that had its corporate fingers in lots of projects -- far too many to mention here. Also back then, Tekno worked closely with my first publisher, Five Star. I didn't meet Marty face to face until the Chicago Bouchercon in 2005. He was a heck of a great guy.

Anyway, when I answered the phone ten years ago, Marty got right to the point. He wanted to know if I'd be interested in writing a new series, one featuring the first female White House Chef as amateur sleuth. It didn't take longer than a heartbeat for me to answer "Yes, definitely!" Marty assured me that I wouldn't have to come up with recipes. Denise, an amazing woman on the Tekno team, would serve as editor and chief recipe-provider.

Aunt Agatha's
And so, over the course of several months, I went to work creating Ollie and her friends, writing the first three chapters of what was to become State of the Onion, and devising plots for three additional books. Marty and Denise worked with me and presented the package to Berkley Prime Crime (Penguin). To my absolute delight, the wonderful editor in charge liked what she read and offered Marty (who then offered me) a three-book deal.

Now, here's where I want to emphasize that the entire White House Chef Mystery concept belonged to Marty and Tekno Books. I didn't (and still don't) own the copyright. This is what's known as a Work-for-Hire. Even though I created every character -- even though I came up with the plots -- even though I wrote every single word of every single story -- I don't own any of it. The contract I signed was for a small advance on each book, and an equally small portion of the royalties.

From day one, working with Berkley has been wonderful. I can't say enough about the people there. I've been treated well and really feel valued. And, when I was working with Marty and Denise at Tekno, I felt the same way. Even when Tekno started having financial difficulties and had to let Denise go, I still felt as though my efforts were appreciated.

Marty Greenberg died in 2011 and with his death, Tekno changed. A lot. I don't know the legal intricacies that went on behind the scenes. What I do know is that the editor I'd been working with after Denise left -- John (an awesome fellow I'm still friends with to this day) -- was soon let go, too.

Although the people remaining at Tekno all seem very nice, the company was different -- at least it seemed so to me. I no longer felt as though I was part of a team, I felt more like a tiny cog in a very large conglomerate. The new editor I was assigned to was very nice, but didn't bring the same enthusiasm to the recipes the way Denise had. Where I'd been able to work with Denise to plan menu themes for each book, my new editor seemed considerably less excited about coming up with dishes for me. I'll admit to getting a bit frustrated.

What was also frustrating was that -- at one point -- Tekno experienced cash-flow problems and my royalty payments were delayed. Very delayed. I can't remember if this was before or after Marty died. But, because of my frustrations with getting paid on time, and because my portion of the royalties was so small, I asked my agent to negotiate my third contract with Tekno, for books # 7, 8, and 9. Up to that point, I'd been negotiating on my own. I'd hoped that involving an agent would get me a better cut of the royalties. I'd also hoped that involving an agent would mean that future payments would arrive on time.

Before I go further, some specifics:

* You may already know this, but most of the traditional publishers pay their authors twice a year. The cut-off for the first half the year is June 30th with checks expected to arrive in authors' accounts around October 1st (yes, you read that right). The second payment of the year cuts off December 31st (checks expected to arrive in authors' accounts around April 1st).

* Even though Tekno owns the series, they don't do much (if anything) in terms of promotion. If they do, they've managed to do it in such a way that I remain completely unaware of their efforts. All promotions, whether offered on FB, here on the blog, via newsletter, etc. are all on me. All costs for giveaways are on me. All mailing expenses are on me. That's no different than any other cozy author, right? But in my other series (Manor House) where I own the copyright, I earn 64 cents per paperback sold, whereas I only earn 21 cents per White House Chef paperback sold. Tekno earns the remainder. That means that the cost of postage for sending out a single postcard costs me more than I can earn on the sale of a book. And that 34 cent expense doesn't include the cost of the postcard itself. That means operating at a loss.

* My agent at the time (a very nice woman and a good agent in other matters) wasn't able to negotiate much in terms of a better cut. My increase, in fact, was so minuscule that (because I now also have to pay her commission out of my royalties) I'm no better off than I was without her intervention.

* I did not get into writing to get rich. I got into writing because it's all I've ever wanted to do. I signed my contracts with Tekno knowing full well that I would be paid very, very little for my hard work. But that was okay with me. When I signed that first contract with Marty, I had a gut-level feeling that this series would be very good for my career. And it has been.

* Involving an agent in the Tekno situation actually made things a little bit worse for me. I take responsibility for that. It was my decision. As a rule, payments for books #1- 6 for my WHChef series come much later than do my payments for the Manor House series. (Berkley ALWAYS pays promptly) Payments and statements for Books #7, 8, and soon-to-be 9 come even later than that.

Remember how I said royalty checks are expected to arrive around October 1st? I received my Tekno checks for WHChef #1 - 6 in mid-November. I will receive nothing for book #8 (All the President's Menus) this year, and the payment for book #7 (Home of the Braised) -- because it needed to be routed through my former agent as well as through her former agency -- didn't show up until mid December. And even then, the royalty statement had been left out. Sigh.

*In my opinion, an author should not have to chase her royalties and statements.

So, sadly, the time has come for me to say good-bye to Ollie and the gang. As much as I love her and everyone in her life, the reality is that things have gotten to the point where it makes no sense for me, business-wise or sanity-wise, to continue.

The good news is that Tekno (recently acquired by another company, btw) can hire a new author to continue the series if they like. I have no idea if they plan to keep Ollie sleuthing, but if they do, someone else will be writing the books.

Aunt Agatha's

The last in the series, Foreign Eclairs, comes out January 5, 2016. Nine books is a good run, isn't it? I think I've ended the series in a way that's satisfactory and yet leaves the door open for possibilities. Let me know if you agree.

I truly hope you've enjoyed Ollie's adventures. I know I've loved every minute of writing them. I love Ollie, Gav, Bucky, Cyan, and even Peter Everett Sargent. They became my dear friends and I will miss them terribly. I hope when you read the final installment you look back on the series with fondness. It's been a heck of a journey for our intrepid chef. Maybe she'll appreciate some time off.

As for me, I'm still writing for Grace in the Manor House mysteries. The seventh in that series, Grace Sees Red, comes out in June. If you haven't met Grace yet, I hope you'll give her a try. But you'll probably want to start with the first book: Grace Under Pressure.

Thank you so very much for all your support.

Oh, one more thing:
My editor at Berkley really wanted the series to continue. Please don't write to Penguin Random House to complain. They've been wonderful and tried to work on my behalf to acquire the copyright from Tekno. But, all good things must come to an end.

How many times can the White House Chef save the world anyway? ;)