So yesterday, I responded to a dear reader who is being stiffed by a magazine for 500.00. I gave some advice.
Thing is, I wanted to give Broke In Brooklyn two examples. But I ran out of time.
I really want BIB to know about another situation that happened to me. Years after the episode with the fashion magazine. It’s a situation that still makes my blood run cold today.
A few years ago, I was approached to ghostwrite/collaborate on my very first celebrity memoir. What happened is a cautionary tale that must be shared…
It all started with this non-fiction book I wanted to write called Off The Record: The Rise and Fall Of Hip-Hop Journalism.
I interviewed dozens of writers, from Miles Marshall Lewis to Keith Clinkscales about the rise of magazines like Vibe and The Source.
An editor we’ll call Jack, who worked at Random House at the time, was interested. We met over drinks and I pitched my little heart out. He nodded approvingly and told me to write a proposal.
I did. But he passed. As did the rest of the world.
[Sidebar. I was so crushed. I was literally sobbing. Staring at the ceiling thinking I would never ever sell a book ever in my life. The truth was, that book just didn’t have a big enough audience. Jack told me later that the idea was great and the proposal was well done. But he just kept thinking to himself: how many people outside NYC would pay 24.95 for it? He wasn’t sure if it could justify a major advance. And he wasn’t able to convince his higher ups either. Looking back, I don’t think the book would have sold well.]
Years and years later, Jack had a meeting with a man we’ll call…Raul.
Raul had been an executive in the music business for over twenty-five years. And he was ready to write a memoir about his experiences. He had juicy details about how the record business worked.
Jack told Raul that he should get in touch with me.
“I think she could write a good proposal for you,” Jack said. “She pitched me a book on hip-hop journalism a few years back. She’s a good writer and researcher.”
And so. I got a call from Raul. And he wanted me to write his book.
Now, this is 2005. While my freelance career was going well, my book career was non-existent. I’d written the Off The Record proposal and it had been roundly-rejected. And then, I wrote a novel: The Teacher’s Room. It was also rejected by all the editors who read it. Then, I wrote a memoir about my experiences as a stepmom in TG’s early years. I didn’t even send that one out.
So I was really excited about the prospect of collaborating on a book. I can’t say I even knew Raul. He wasn’t a celebrity per se. His name was only vaguely familiar to me. But still. Jack sounded like there was a good chance that he was getting a book deal. I wanted in!
Raul talked a great game. He told me all the juicy tidbits he was going to add to his book. He was outing people about taking payola, giving the backstory on how certain artists got signed. And he had tons of stories about every executive in the game, from Kevin Lyles to Kedar Massenburg.
I did have some reservations about helping someone tell a story that would prove damaging to other people’s reputations.
I got over it.
I was with a very well-known literary agency at the time. And they negotiated the terms of my deal with Raul. It was all new to me and I had no clue what was involved. As part of the deal, I agreed to write the proposal for free. (It’s common for writers to produce a proposal for a celebrity at no cost. And if you’re a new writer with no other books to your credit, you can definitely expect to write the proposal for free.)
Raul and I set up a weekly schedule for phone conversations. (He was living in Virginia.)
And the process began smoothly. I’d call him three times a week, we’d talk for hours. I’d type until my hands cramped up. And I crafted his 50 page proposal in a few weeks.
As I prepared to turn it in, Raul told me about rumors swirling around the deal.
“Aliya, they’re talking about a six figure deal,” Raul said.
“Really?” I asked. “Do you think you’ll get that much?”
“That’s what it sounds like…”
We had negotiated for me to receive 40% of his advance. If he got 100,000, that would be 40,000 for me. Not bad at all. Especially for a first-timer. I was excited.
I handed in the proposal and there was a very strong buzz for the book.
When several editors are showing an interest in a book, the agent or lawyer holds an auction. Editors bid on the book and the highest bidder wins.
So, Raul’s attorney set up an auction because there was a heavy buzz. People were throwing around crazy numbers behind the scenes.
And then, on the day of the auction, the bids began coming in. And they were low. And then got lower. And lower. And lower.
That’s the danger with an auction. Anything can happen.
I’m not sure what went down. But I think the salaciousness of the topic started to worry the editors. And then, I think there were some concerns because some of the book publishers were connected to the very record labels that Raul was skewering in the book.
One high-profile editor pulled out of the auction. And when that happened, everyone backed away.
The winning bid? 45,000.
According to the terms of our contract, I would receive 18,000.
I understood then why my agent had insisted on inserting a “floor-ceiling” clause. My contract stated that if I didn’t receive a minimum of 25,000 for the deal, I could walk away from the contract.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew writing a book would take at least a year of my time. I knew it would be a lot of work–worth more than 18,000. But was I really going to walk away? Raul was firm.
“Aliya, I need you. I can’t start over with another writer! I know it’s not the money we thought it would be. But I will re-configure the contract to give you more royalties. And this book WILL sell. You know that.”
“But 18,000…” I said.
“I know,” Raul said. “I’m giving up all the juicy details of my career for a 45,000 dollar deal? All I’m gonna do is buy myself a little convertible with that money. But the real money will be in the royalties. I promise you this book will sell.”
I did believe that he had an explosive story that could end up selling well.
My agent told me that 18,000 wasn’t enough. But she stressed that getting a book under my belt would be a good thing.
I’d heard this from other writers too. They said you always had to make a sacrifice to get that first book published.
I decided to do the deal.
I met my agent in the lobby of her building in Manhattan. She had a sheaf of papers for me to sign here. And here. And initial here.
“Now what?” I asked her.
“Now we send the contract to Raul. He signs and sends back to us. And we’re all set.”
“Do I have to wait for him to send the contracts back before he and I get started?”
“No,” my agent said. “Getting your contracts together may take a while. It’s time to get to work.”
And so I did.
According to the contract, once Raul signed his contract with the publisher, they would send him a check for 18,000. And in turn, his lawyer would send my agent a check for 6,000. And then my agent would send me a check for 6,000, minus her commission. I’d get another 6,000 when we handed in half of the book. And a final 6,000 when the book was published.
That money was not going to come soon enough. I turned down a few freelance projects because I wanted to give 110% to the book. Even though it wasn’t going to make me a lot of money, this was my opportunity to show what I could do.
I finished the first five chapters of the book quickly. And after a few changes, Raul said he loved it. Every once in a while, I asked my agent about my contract with Raul.
“It’s not in yet,” she would say. “We had to make some minor changes about the royalty structure.”
“But I should keep working, right” I asked.
And so I did.
Months went by. Still no money from the publisher. Still no signed agreement with Raul. But I kept plugging away. I talked to Raul three days a week. Wrote page after page, deep into the night. I did extra research on my own to make sure his facts were correct. I found myself covering my mouth with my hand when he told me some of the seedy stories about the music business. The book was a scorcher.
Finally, months after we began, I got nervous.
“How come you haven’t got the first part of your advance?” I asked Raul.
“I don’t know but I’m getting pissed off,” he said.
I asked my agent. She told me to be patient.
“These things take a long time,” she said.”Keep working.”
And so I did.
The editor who purchased the book asked to see the first half. I submitted it. And I kept working.
And then. I was done. Finished. I had written the entire book. Raul had signed off on every page and he loved it. We’d told his whole story–from his childhood in New York City, to his coked-out introduction to a drug-addled music industry in the go-go eighties, to his redemption and recovery in the 90s.
And he still hadn’t signed our agreement.
The editor who bought the book had a ton of questions, comments and edits about the book. And she set up a conference call for all of us to talk and discuss the edit process. I began to feel uncomfortable. We were already editing the book? And I still hadn’t received one dollar? I told Raul I wasn’t doing the conference call. No way. It would have to wait until I saw some money.
“My lawyer told me they are sending the money this week. Please do this conference call. I can’t talk to them on my own about the edits.”
I did the conference call, furiously scribbling notes about everything they wanted. The editor was very concerned about some of the claims Raul was making in the book. How was he going to prove that [Name Redacted] really gave a radio programmer $10,000 to play a certain song. How was he going to prove that [Name Redacted] was really sniffing coke in his office on a daily basis. There were a lot of claims. Not a lot of proof.
I re-read the entire book that night with the editor’s notes in mind. She was right. Raul’s book was scandalous. But was it all true? I got nervous. This book looked like it might not happen. Raul and I would have a lot of work to do to make sure it wasn’t libelous.
The very next day, Raul sent me a picture in an email.
The caption read: You like my new car?
There was Raul. Sitting in a little convertible.
I thought back to months ago. When he talked about how he would use his advance money.
All I’m gonna do is buy myself a little convertible with that money.
Where the hell did he get money to buy a new car?
While writing the book, Raul had fallen on hard times. He didn’t give me details. But I knew he was living with his elderly mother. And I knew that he had no computer or internet access and often went to the public library in his hometown in order to print out the manuscript. His cell phone was often disconnected. And all he talked about was getting his advance so he could cop this convertible he wanted.
I called my agent immediately. She wasn’t in. I left a message.
“Find out if the money was sent to Raul,” I said. “Now.”
Then I called Raul.
“Call me back,” I said to his voice mail. “Now.”
I never heard Raul’s voice again.
It turns out that the publishing company did send the check for $18,000 to Raul’s attorney. Raul’s attorney sent the check directly to him. He told her he would pay me himself.
He did not.
I blew up Raul’s cell phone for a solid 24-hours. It went straight to voicemail. I called his momma’s house.
“Excuse me baby?”
“WHERE IS YOUR SON!”
“Oh. He’s at the library. Can I take a message baby?”
“TELL HIM I WANT MY MONEY!”
“Okay. Let me see now. Let me write this down. Tell. him. I want my… You want your what?”
“MY MONEY. M-O-N-E-Y.”
“Got it. Okay baby, I’ll give him the message.”
Raul disappeared. As far as I know, he never contacted the publisher about the edits they requested for the book. And I assume the book was cancelled. He scammed them out of 18,000. And he scammed me out of 6,000. Technically, I am owed 18,000. Because I actually finished the entire book.
Right now, as I type this, it’s 10:22 AM. I’m sitting at my desk, in my lovely office, sipping on my coffee and typing.
And my teeth are clenched so tight that my jaw hurts.
It’s been almost four years. And I’m still heated.
It is SO not about the money. It’s about getting played and disrespected so thoroughly. I worked hard on that man’s book. HARD. And he took complete advantage of me. He STOLE that money from me, same as if he came in my house and swiped it out of my sock drawer.
I decided to sue him. We did have a contract! He owed me at least six thousand dollars. I called my agent to get a copy of the signed agreement so I could talk to a lawyer.
“Aliya,” she said. “We don’t have a signed agreement. He never sent it back. I spoke to him the day before yesterday and he said he was overnighting it. It never showed up.”
And that was that. Without a signed agreement, I had no leg to stand on in court. He could walk in there and say that I’d agreed to write the book for free. How would I prove otherwise without a contract?
I talked to a few lawyers who told me I could still file a lawsuit and fight it. But the fact was, I’d completed the book and sent it to him without a signed agreement. It would be a tough case.
I didn’t file a lawsuit. I didn’t have one red cent to hire an attorney. And it wasn’t the money I wanted anyway. I wanted my pride back. I wanted the time I’d spent back. No judge in the world would be able to do that.
I moved on. His name was not allowed to be said in my presence. I relieved my agent of her services and hired another one.
I dusted myself off. And I kept it moving.
I don’t know where Raul is today. I didn’t tell anyone but my closest friends and family about what happened. One friend of mine bumped into him a few years ago and Raul asked about me. The friend, (who has trouble keeping his composure in these situations), let it slip that I was pissed off. I got an email from Raul that day:
“Hey, I heard you were mad. Call me so I can explain what happened and we can get back to work on this book.”
Needless to say, I did not respond.
It gets better.
A few months ago, I reached out to a writer to assign them a story for a magazine that I edit on a freelance basis. The writer wrote me back:
“Hey, what a coincidence. I was just thinking about you. This guy named Raul just sent me this book that you wrote with him. It’s good.”
Not only did Raul screw me over. But years later, he’s sending out MY BOOK THAT I WROTE AND DID NOT GET PAID FOR like it’s all good?
Nice, Raul. Real nice.
So what did I learn from that experience? A whole lot.
With all three books I’ve collaborated on since then, I don’t touch my keyboard until the agreement is signed. Frank Lucas screamed on me for weeks last year. Because I was “wasting time” while our reps hashed out the deal. It was the only time I screamed on him right back.
“I’m not writing anything until we get this deal finalized,” I said. “So chill out.”
That was also the first and last time I hung up on him.
With the Faith book, the contract process was a bit slow. And I calmly explained to her what happened to Raul and why I’d have to stop working until everything was straight.
“Handle your business Aliya,” she said. “Never feel bad about that. I’ve been there.”
So, BIB, being owed 500.00 by that magazine may feel like the end of the world. But it’s not. Our dear readers gave you some advice yesterday about how to proceed. And I hope you take their advice.
But most importantly, as your career continues to grow, remember that you are your own boss. And NO ONE will look out for you more than you. No one.
dear readers, how would you handle Raul if you were me? Would you have begged and borrowed money to hire an attorney? Even though you didn’t even have a signed contract? Would you have just gotten Raul beat up? Would you just simmer and be mad and write a blog post about it four years later?
I’d love to hear from you…
P.S. Raul, please don’t reach out to me. I swear fo’ God…