sweat equity, n.1: Work, especially manual labor, performed in return for a share in ownership, as of a home. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.)
If an author offers you a percentage of his or her future book’s profits as payment for your sweat equity up front, beware. I’ve learned the hard way that this arrangement can leave your creative and financial bank accounts in the red. My education demonstrates why such deals favor the person receiving the free services up front (a.k.a. the user) at the expense of the one providing the sweat (a.k.a. the used). When I began, I knew little about the risks of publishing or sweat equity. Since then, I’ve earned a Ph.D.
1998 (Freshman Year)
Once Upon A Time, A Book Was Born And I Became Its Nanny.
I first heard the term sweat equity in 1998 when a respected professional asked if I’d review her non-fiction book manuscript. I had experience with grant proposals and publications, and she offered to hire me. I had a dead-end job, was struggling financially, and needed extra income. She offered me a sweat equity deal, a generous percentage of her future profits as deferred payment instead of an ongoing wage. I should have run right then. Instead, I did some research and believed there was a shot at making money if her book could be revised to appeal to the mass market. Instead of getting a lawyer’s opinion on my risks, images of Oprah danced in my head, and I accepted.
I helped plan how to revise the academic manuscript into more down-to-earth language with easy-to-grasp concepts. This was presented to the author in late 1998. I was excited to be part of a business venture, learning everything I could about publishing. With my determination and creativity, the sky would be the limit, I thought, envisioning my share of a book advance and royalties.
We signed an informal document specifying the split of profits. I was to also typeset the edited manuscript. Then, the author decided to self-publish instead, so I researched companies and printing quotes. We discussed the potential of sales and my pay-off coming within two years. The ball was rolling but, what I couldn’t see then, was that it would end up running right over my feet.
* No matter how tempting, remember that 30 percent of a future nothing = nothing. Never let anyone convince you that his or her financial investment is worth more than the value of your ongoing sweat. That is not someone who has your best interests at heart.
1999 (Sophomore Year)
Oh, What A Tangled Publishing Web We Can Weave When We Let Ourselves Be Deceived.
I waited for the author to sign on with the independent publishing company. She had involved another sweat equity partner to handle promotion. This person created delays, but she wasn’t held accountable. By mid-1999, I’d completed the typesetting job. Delays continued until I finally took the initiative and began performing promotion and business management duties to get things moving. I didn’t have time to waste.
By fall 1999, the other party dropped out and we revised our contract to reflect my additional duties of promotion for an additional percentage of profits. I still believed in the book’s potential. The author was thrilled at what I’d accomplished and let me assume the marketing duties. Once again, I neglected to protect my best interests, digging myself in deeper.
* Not all partners are created equal. Be sure that your partners share the same vision of commitment, that there are timelines and recourse for their non-performance, and that you get paid. Don’t let yourself be lured in like I was, still unpaid after working a year.
2000 (Junior Year)
Is It Soup, Yet? I was now providing business management and graphic design services, determined to get the book to press so we’d have something to sell. Unfortunately, I’d gotten involved with someone who knew little about the publishing business, but wanted to be a star. I insisted that she have a lawyer draw up an official contract, but I didn’t get a lawyer’s opinion for myself. There were no obligations for my partner other than being author. I, on the other hand, was to perform editing and ongoing promotion services for my share of profits. Due to repeated author delays, the book did not go to press until fall 2000, almost two years into the mess. I was in too deep to leave empty handed and grateful to at least have books to market now.
We had 2,000 copies printed and the launch of the book began to take over my life. I managed direct author sales, did bulk mailings, oversaw book signings, designed promotional materials on my computer, and processed direct customer orders. I began incurring personal expenses such as mileage and office supplies. On the positive side, I was learning about selling books. On the negative, I still hadn’t received a dime.
* Never let another’s greed override your need. By now, I’d worked two years, gotten nothing, and had little recourse. My partner was comfortable financially and never felt the urgency to sacrifice like I did.
2001 (Senior Year)
How Did A Nice Girl Like Me End Up In A Deal Like This?
The project grew into a full-time business as my apartment and car became my offices. I worked another part-time job to make ends meet, hoping for some payoff by year-end. The author signed books and presented at a few workshops in between the rest of her well-paid career and life, hoping for major sales. She had not planned to sacrifice much time to be a self-published author, and I did the best I could with a small budget, saving her money whenever possible by doing things myself. I operated in unreality since promoting a self-published book kept me so busy I didn’t have time to think about how I was being used. My work ethic and the potential of a generous payday propelled me forward. I had hope since the books were selling.
By mid-2001, the book went into its second printing of 2,000 copies, but big bucks were another matter. I began to reassess the one-sided situation I was in since the author did not want to devote more energy to her project, and provided limited finances for promotion. I began to realize how I’d taken on much more than I’d bargained for, including being a personal assistant and bookkeeper, which were not contracted for. I insisted that my partner sign on with an agent to sell the property to a major publisher. She agreed, and I prayed.
By August 2001, the book and author had received some good reviews, exposure, and publicity, but it takes major sales to pay off big. The author never made the commitment for the involvement that takes. Like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, every time I thought I was out, something pulled me back in. I was burnt out now, but began to be paid my share of the sales made so far. I elected to spread the amount out over a few months so I could quit my other job and devote every minute to gaining more media exposure. The agent planned to sell it in September and things looked good. Then 9/11 hit, and the world stopped. The agent postponed everything, and book sales peaked.
*You can’t deposit hope, flattery, and maybe in the bank. If something happens to the author before the book is established, you’re left out in the cold because no one wants to interview the editor. Book publishing is risky. If you want to gamble, go to Vegas.
2002 (Masters and Ph.D.)
My Wake-Up Call
By spring 2002, the agent was ready to approach editors again. I continued working, even after my share of proceeds dried up in April. I had to make it pay off soon, I told myself, as I generated more mailings, press releases, radio/TV interviews, and press clippings. We had a few sales, but not enough to pay. I also began assisting the author with book proposals for the agent, another duty not contracted for. I did whatever I thought would bring my payday and freedom. I snared a successful media blitz for the author while another proposal was drafted, and the beat dragged on. I was not being paid any more and began to understand the saying about a horse being rode hard and put away wet.
I’d received around $9,000 as my share. Not bad, you say? I should have had a V8. After factoring in the time I’d worked since 1998 that averaged to $4 an hour, not counting self-employment tax. A conservative estimate of the value of my contribution during the heaviest phase of the project was $40,000. I’d invested four years of sweat equity and received little from it that contributed to what I wanted professionally, or any realization of my dreams. My goal was to produce some financial stability, but with that diminishing daily, my return grew smaller.
At the end of 2002, I took a stand. I was told, “Maybe next year,” while my partner began paying others for services in the project. I screamed no more and went on strike. An author friend of mine convinced me how I had been ripped off and that I should get paid. I requested that my partner buy out my percentage, release me from the unfair contract, and pay me for all past services, which she’d always praised. I even offered to give up my future share of profits. She said she wanted to wait until she had a book advance. It’s now spring 2003, and she has played a cruel game of dodge ball knowing I have no recourse. If I ever receive anything, it still won’t be worth it for all my work and time lost. My partner gained recognition as an author, expert, and media guest. I gained an expensive graduate degree from the University of Experience.
* Never risk this much for someone else’s fantasy, or let financial desperation allow you to sell your talents short. Creative people need to explore their own vision, not stay chained to another’s dream. That can lead to burn out of the spirit. Fortunately, this Cinderella reclaimed hers just in time.
As God Is My Witness, I Will Never Work For Sweat Equity Again.
When I feel myself getting angry about not getting paid for everything I did, I turn that into positive energy for my own projects. I’ve completed my first novel, and can apply what I learned about promotion to my own published book. Always remember that your creative energy is a valuable commodity, one that some may try to capitalize on. Just be sure you get paid fair value for yours.
Julie V. Matherly lives in Florida. She has completed her first novel and can be reached at……