This month’s post is going to be different from the norm. Rather than talk about business and legal aspects of writing in theory, I’m going to tell a true experience I’ve had and relate the principles behind the decisions I made. As I type these words, I’ve got a novel sitting at 40th on Amazon.de. It’s been in the Top 100 for 25 days, and has already earned more money than I’ve ever earned in a month in my indie writing career, and the way it got there is an interesting story.
Almost two years ago, when I started posting novels and science fiction short stories online to sell, I got an email from Michael Drecker, a German who wanted to translate my stories. He suggested that we price the German translations a little bit higher than the English versions, and I just pay him the difference. I knew this probably wouldn’t earn him much money, so I suggested a better deal for him, that he get all royalties up to a certain amount that would be his translation fee, and then we split the rest of the royalties 50-50, because what we were doing was very speculative. He was taking a big risk. The underlying principles: 1) be brave. If someone suggests something, don’t just say no. Think about it. 2) Give other people a fair shake, especially when they’re offering a prolonged business arrangement. Michael didn’t know what a typical short story earns, and the deal I suggested enabled him to make more royalties from my translations than a traditional translator would. I think it’s made all the difference in our relationship, and I wouldn’t change that deal if I could, nor recall a single cent I’ve paid over to him. My reason’s will become clearer as I go.
I drafted a contract for us to make these terms clear and we both signed it. We’ve also signed addendums with every new work. I had Michael read it over carefully and ask as many questions as he wanted to ask before he signed. The principle: Always draft an agreement so expectations are clear, and have it done by a lawyer. In this case, that’s me.
Michael translated three short stories, and we agreed on a fee of a certain number of Euro cents per source word. We put up each story and sold a few copies, but only a few. I introduced Michael to other writers and he did some other short stories, and then he and I put the three short stories he’d done for me into a collection and we did a free promotion on Amazon with it. The collection flew high during the free promotion, but sales were very slow. This work of his wasn’t going to earn out. The principles: 1) Start slow and manageable. I didn’t commit to anything I couldn’t pay for out of pocket if it failed when I started off. In the process of having Michael translate these short stories, I got a feel for how he was to work with as a translator, and how strong his translation skills ere. He even corrected my English in places. 2) Failure is part of the process. If things were going to work in a business relationship with Michael, we’d have to weather the good and the bad together. Don’t regret the bad. Keep your eyes open through it. Michael was disciplined and determined throughout this whole process, and he was open to the idea of working for quite a while as an indie translator before making much of an income off it. Our royalties share would someday allow him a passive income stream, but he’d need to build out his shelf to achieve that.
I knew from indie publishing in English that novels sell better than short stories, and Michael was aware of the thriving indie author community in Germany. One of the big indie markets was romance, so he suggested that he translate my novel Someone Else’s Fairytale. I looked at what the fee would be, and it was significant, but at the time I was making enough from my English novel sales to cover it (provided I saved up the royalties for several months). If Michael was willing to double down, so was I. Given the scope of the project, though, it seemed more fair that he make some money up front, so that he didn’t waste weeks of his life translating something that only paid a few Euros. We agreed to give him 10% up front. The principle: Always see the deal from both sides and bargain in good faith. If the other person also acts in good faith, which Michael had, translating stories and supporting their launches, preserve this relationship.
Michael translated Someone Else’s Fairytale and researched how to market an indie novel. In a master-stroke, he contacted German indie romance author, Emily Bold, who had a novel coming out in English, and arranged a publicity swap. This was a major coup for me, and not something I’d ever have been able to do for myself. We launched Nicht mein Märchen, and it did well. Finally we had a success on our hands. We set the goal of becoming the first all indie team to crack the Amazon.de Kindle Top 100, but we fell just short. We got to #113 before the launch momentum began to fade and the novel slid on down the ranks, but it didn’t slide too terribly far. It spent months in top 1,000. Come January of that year, I went to calculate what I owed Michael and I found I’d made a mistake. Kindle Direct Publishing lets you select whether you get 35% or 70% royalties, and I’d mistakenly hit 35% when we were eligible for 70%. This was my fault, I screwed up, and I paid for it. I sent him the amount of money he would have earned but for my mistake. The principle: Treat your business partner how you’d want to be treated. When you screw up, do what you can to make it right. Because of our history, I think Michael would have let me pay it in installments if I couldn’t afford it. He certainly didn’t demand that I pay up in full, but under the circumstances, there’s no reason he should have had to. In future, this will prevent Michael worrying about me shorting him. He knows I keep to the spirit of the contract, even if the letter of it doesn’t cover the specific situation.
These strong royalties enabled Michael to resign from a job that was taking up all his time and energy, while his passion was for translating. His original plan was to get another job in fairly short order. He made it through the spring, summer and most of the fall on the royalties of Märchen, and during that time, he translated the sequel, Nobody’s Damsel. During this time he also cultivated a following on Twitter, and I began to pay him a set fee per month to tweet about my work. Märchen earned out his translation fee, but I carried on paying him full royalties to put my half of them towards the fee on the short stories he’d already done. I wasn’t contractually obligated to do this, but it seemed only fair, given he’d done the work of translating them. The principle: Don’t be a miser. Don’t go entirely for your own advantage. Build up goodwill. And again, treat the other person how you’d want to be treated. This also enabled Michael to put off getting a day job for that much longer.
When we got ready to publish the sequel, titled Prinzessin in Not in German, Michael’s funds were low enough that he was back in the market for a day job. We discussed launch publicity and decided together to lower the price of Märchen to .99 and launch Prinzessin at 2.99. We did the launch and Märchen and Prinzessin both did very well. We cheered when they were both ranked in the 400′s on the site. Given the way all our other launches had gone, I think we both expected them to stay there for a while – a few months ideally, before they slid down, and Michael would make enough money to keep translating full time for another month. He had contacted all the bloggers who reviewed Märchen and they gave Prinzessin a boost. The principle: Set up the deal so that you have the same priorities, and then work together to achieve them. Our deal is simple, we split the royalties after he earns out his fee. This makes us equally motivated to get sales, and so there’s no wondering whether the other person has some angle. He knows I’m not just wanting to say I have a novel out in German. I want to sell said novel. I know he doesn’t just want to get a strong launch and then drop the project and move on to something else. The structure of our deal ensures we’re equally invested, so we can work together without doubting the other’s motives.
The books climbed into the 300′s, the 200′s. We realized we once again had a real shot at the top 100 and when Märchen hit 100, we gave each other virtual high fives and pats on the back and called it good. The book was down the rankings the next day and I assumed that was that, but I was wrong. It bounced back up. It spent a day or two in the 80′s, then climbed and climbed. It’s been as high as 22 and has just sort of cycled around the 30′s and 40′s most of this time. A few times Prinzessin has joined it in the top 100. Together Michael and I decided to leave the prices as they are and the sales keep on rolling, for now. These books have already made this month my highest earning month ever. There is real money on the table. The lesson learned: You never know exactly when or how success will come, and success isn’t necessarily a happy occurrence. The reason why Michael and I can jump up and down with excitement and celebrate is because we’ve got a strong business relationship. How could this have been different? Now that there’s money on the table, people can get greedy. In this deal, I still have much of the power as I’m the one who receives the money and doles it out. Michael is living off this income. I could, with relative ease, put him in a very tough situation. That can put stress on even the best friendships. My fair dealing up to this point has stopped that kind of problem before it had a chance to start.
The contract is only the beginning of your business relationship, be it with a publisher, agent, translator, or publicist. The terms of it alone won’t make all the difference. A business venture requires the parties to have faith in each other. As you get good contracts, be a good business partner and find others you can work well with. I am an indie author with no agent or publisher making some very real money on two books in a foreign language market. My contract didn’t make that happen. My teamwork with Michael Drecker did. Bestsellers are nice, but good business partners are priceless.