Good Faith or Good Practice?

About 15 years ago, I sat at a conference table with an author and his soon to be publisher, and listened to the publisher’s counsel state that the publisher likes to have all copyrights in its name.

I shifted in my seat, uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation.

The author, who was also my client, didn’t question the publisher, nor did he ask about options to recover the rights when or if the book went out of print, nor the option to recover the rights at any other point.

I attended the meeting as a publicist. The author wanted me there during negotiations for the contract, to discuss PR and marketing, who would do what, and so on.

All these years later, I can’t remember why the contract wasn’t signed that day, but I do remember saying something to the author later. I asked him if he wanted to retain the copyright and license it to the publisher or if he really wanted to turn over complete ownership of the book to the publisher.

He believed the publisher was acting in good faith, that it wasn’t operating with intent to deceive, and that things would be fine.

Look up “good faith” and “law” together online and you’ll find a number of definitions, all of which tend to be anchored to the phrase “honest intent.” Here’s the good faith definition from Cornell Law School:

“A term that generally describes honest dealing. Depending on the exact setting, good faith may require an honest belief or purpose, faithful performance of duties, observance of fair dealing standards, or an absence of fraudulent intent.”

There’s also a definition for “bad faith” on Cornell Law School’s site, too:

“A term that generally describes dishonest dealing. Depending on the exact setting, bad faith may mean a dishonest belief or purpose, untrustworthy performance of duties, neglect of fair dealing standards, or a fraudulent intent.”

So how do you know if someone is acting in good faith or bad faith when you enter into a contract with them?

You don’t.

It’s unlikely you’ll ever meet someone who states at the gate that he or she is operating in bad faith. Afterall, why would you ever sign a contract with such a person?

So what do you do when a publisher (or any other entity with which you’re negotiating with) asks for terms that aren’t what you expected, that sound “off,” and/or don’t pass the gut check?

You protect yourself.

You might believe that the publisher is acting in good faith, but you don’t sign a contract partially based on assumptions. You sign a contract that spells out everything, so that assumptions are eliminated.

In the case of my client, he went back to the publisher and said he wanted to retain the copyright and would license the rights for publishing. The publisher agreed and that was that.

The author could have signed as the publisher initially wished, because the author was scared of losing the contract. Instead, he countered. He stated different terms.

If you’re scared of losing a contract if you don’t sign, then you need to hold back and really consider if what you’re doing is good enough for now or the best for the long run. It might be that the company is acting in good faith, but if you don’t understand all the terms and/or are operating on assumptions, at a much later point, you might find yourself feeling you are on the end of a deal that isn’t in your best interest.

There’s about a two-minute segment of VH1’s “Behind the Music” episode about the group TLC, which has stayed strong in my mind, even though almost 20 years have passed since I first watched it.

In the episode, “Left Eye” breaks down “how a group can sell 10 million albums and be broke.”

Ok. There are 100 points on an album. TLC has seven. Every point is equal to eight cents. Alright? Seven times eight . . . Fifty-six cents. That means that every time an album gets sold, TLC gets fifty-six cents. So, ten million records . . . $5.6 million. Seems like a lot of money. Well, it’s not a lot of money when the record company has spent $3 million to record your album. And, in the record business, we pay all costs back to the record company. We pay recording costs, video costs. So, now, we have $2.6 million left. Well guess what? When you have that much money, you’re in about the 47, 48, 49 percent tax bracket. Well, that immediately gets deducted to $1.3 million.Then, you split the rest three ways. You got about $300,000 a piece, if that much. Okay? $300,000. I can buy a nice house with that. And, what am I gonna pay my bills with?

OK. Let’s just cruise by the reality that many people make do on less than $300,000 a year. That’s not the point here. The point is that the group entered into a contract with specific terms.

When you’re on the other side of such terms . . .

I’d be mad myself if I made $300,000 and knew that there were a lot of other people making millions of dollars off of my hard work. Yes, they might have had the expertise to get it all done, and maybe I wouldn’t be a household name if not for them, but . . . I want to be banking some of that money for the future, too.

That’s exactly what Dolly Parton did when she said no to Elvis Presley recording her song “I Will Always Love You.” I wrote about this a while back, in the post “Horse Sense: Lay a Little Heavy on the Business Side.” A few days before Elvis was set to record the song, Colonel Tom Parker (a.k.a. Elvis’ manager) called up Dolly and told her:

“Now, you do know that Elvis is recordin’ your song. And you do know that Elvis don’t record anything that he don’t publish or at least get half the publishin’ on.”

Dolly responded:

“I can’t do that. This song’s already been a hit with me. And this is in my publishing company. And obviously this is gonna be one of my most important copyrights. And I can’t give you half the publishing, ’cause that’s stuff that I’m leavin’ for my family.”

Elvis didn’t record the song, but years later, Whitney Houston did—and her recording became one of the best-selling singles of all time. Dolly Parton’s eye on tomorrow instead of today served her well.

Were Colonel Tom Parker or TLC’s recording company acting in bad faith?

Or did the artists accept certain terms that ended up tasting like bad faith after the fact?

I can’t answer those questions for them, but I learned lessons from them.

Know your rights, understand the terms, and always follow good practices.

Good faith is a priority, but it can lead to assumptions and a chance you’ll end up in a bad place.

There’s also the reality that some people are really snakes. They’ll say they are acting in good faith, but the opposite is closer to the truth.

Protect yourself.

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A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

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Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

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16 Comments

  1. Mary Doyle on March 23, 2018 at 5:43 am

    Wise words Callie! As I’ve gotten older, that “gut check” is something I always heed – thanks!



  2. Kate on March 23, 2018 at 6:11 am

    Callie, thank you for sharing this. This is something I have not often considered, because when you’re in the querying process and agent search, you often don’t look too many steps ahead, which is something that should probably be done. Great article.



  3. Mia Sherwood Landau on March 23, 2018 at 6:13 am

    What Mary said… plus i’ll raise her one. Sadly, since the days of the Elvis and Dolly negotiation, the business world has deteriorated dramatically. These days, Col Parker would probably not call, he’d just assume and sue Dolly later. Big construction companies build OSHA fines into their budgets because it’s cheaper than providing safe working conditions for workers. If an author is not able or willing to think like a lawyer on her own behalf, she needs to hire one. Seriously. I am not being negative here, Callie, and neither are you. Caution is a necessary reality of business life now, especially for artists.



  4. Becky Blanton on March 23, 2018 at 6:20 am

    I wish I could say it only took ONCE for me to get burned, but it didn’t. I have (had) such trust in people I really assume they were always acting with MY best interests at heart. They’re not. My father told me to never conduct business without a contract, but he never explained why, or what it should include. NOW I know. And it’s depressing to see how many people really are snakes out to screw you over. About 99% of them to one degree or another. I know Dolly Parton (from my years as a Tennessee journalist covering her, interviewing her, talking to her). And she’s one wickedly smart businesswoman, but she made mistakes trusting people along the way that made her so smart. So, we all learn!



  5. Brian S Nelson on March 23, 2018 at 6:52 am

    Thanks again Callie. This blog provides me breadcrumbs from the spiritual/esoteric to the material/concrete. During Basic Training in the Army, we were punished if we left our wall-lockers unlocked. I initially found that odd.
    “Keeps honest people honest…” was one of the explanations I heard while doing push-ups.

    In reflection, that is a rather profound thought. Protecting yourself not only ‘protects yourself’, but the act also protects others from their lower selves. It helps keeps the world moving in the right direction. It is not only TLC’s wealth, it is looking out for the ‘spiritual well-being’ of the recording studio.

    I read about a study in which no one (maybe 20%) contributed to the coffee fund. The researcher taped a picture of cartoon eyes over the coffee pot…and the coffee donations increased to 80%. All our lower selves needed was to feel like we were being watched. Crazy, but true.
    Thanks again.
    bsn



  6. Anonymous on March 23, 2018 at 6:58 am

    Make do?



  7. Evelyn on March 23, 2018 at 7:10 am

    Great reminder to spell everything out, Callie. I am chastened from assuming by years of my children repeating the joke-cum-mantra “Mom, you know what happens when you assume? You make an ass out of ‘u’ and ‘me’!”



  8. BarbaraNH on March 23, 2018 at 7:22 am

    Thanks, Callie! Who ever thinks of this when trying to find today’s words? Great post. I’ve already fowarded it to teo friends with publisef books.



  9. Sue on March 23, 2018 at 7:27 am

    Thanks for the great article, Callie; you have impeccable timing. I also like Brian’s comment above about keeping people honest.

    The analogy I share with students is that a contract is like the rules in a board game. Just spells out how to play for all involved parties, and what happens in scenarios x, y, and z. The key is to make sure we read, help write and understand those rules before agreeing to play.

    As usual, I also appreciate the links you include for additional reading–good nuggets in there, too, that are especially pertinent to my day today.



  10. John M Heisman on March 23, 2018 at 8:57 am

    So well put Callie. I went over my first contract with a fine toothed come and saw that the publishing house inserted half interest in film rights and derivatives. I refused the contract which was then quickly scratched of the offending material and made suitable. Do not give away your personal power.



  11. Daniel R. Foley on March 23, 2018 at 9:34 am

    It understandable that a writer who only may have known rejection would fall into this trap, also that so few have any experience in business, otherwise why would they enter into so risky a business as writing? Half the agents and producers I’ve met in NYC know this and prey on the unsuspecting. The best answer, the day I need it, if it ever comes, is to bring an attorney with me versed in intellectual property law. When it come to theater, the Writer’s Guild provides representation at a very low cost. I don’t know if there is a comparable organization for “book” writers but would be interested to know if there is one. After dozens of failed projects, my latest is the most “marketable,” but that’s only my opinion at this point.



  12. Stephanie Sinclaire on March 23, 2018 at 5:12 pm

    thank you



  13. Sandra on March 23, 2018 at 7:08 pm

    I’m printing a copy of this. Thank you!



  14. Julie Murphy on March 23, 2018 at 7:56 pm

    In the hero’s journey we sometimes have our face in the mud…in the artist’s journey we sometimes get our head stuck in the cloud…but if we don’t have our feet on the ground it could all be for nothing. Thanks for the reality check, Callie. We’re all headed to that conference table and need to be ready when we arrive. Thanks so much!



  15. Jorge on March 24, 2018 at 5:09 am

    This is so true. I worked as a music critic for two mayor newspapers in San Juan and many artists would always gripe about this, AFTER THE FACT. There are so many cases, Billy Joel for example. Thank you Callie. Great read and insight….



  16. Joe on March 25, 2018 at 7:22 am

    Operating principle: “Say no to Elvis.”



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