“Jump-Starting a Stalled (or Dead) Career” is Copyright © 1997 by John Gregory Betancourt. All rights reserved.
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Let’s get a couple of things straight up front. First, this essay is aimed at people who (like me) had published a few novels . . . and then found themselves abruptly unable to sell another one. It’s not for beginning writers, though parts of it may prove useful to beginners. Second, this essay won’t provide a quick fix. If you botched your career as badly as I did mine, it’s going to take a lot of work to start it on the right track again (if it can be done at all). It’s taken me 7 years to get to the point I feel confident enough to do sample chapters for an original novel again and think it has a strong chance of selling.
Let me start by outlining what happened in my own case. I know exactly why my career imploded — in fact, I can pinpoint not one, but two different factors (that happened simultaneously for maximum career damage).
The short version: In the mid 1980s, I was selling science fiction to Warner Books and fantasy to Avon Books. (I was a teenager; they were the bottom of the market and receptive to new writers.) My initial failure as a science fiction writer was due almost entirely to poor sales, directly attributable to:
- Warner having lousy distribution for its science fiction line
- I had the bottom slots in Warner’s SF list
- My books received horrible cover art
- My books received godawful cover blurbs and back cover copy
My last original science fiction novel (Rememory, Warner Questar, 1990) — a political mystery novel (“more than worth the time to read it” — Locus) about people who have been genetically engineered to look like cats — featured a very dark cover with Kirstie Alley, a Cylon spaceship from Battlestar: Galactica, and something that might have been a reject from the Cats! play on the cover if you squinted. It sold 4,600 copies. All told, a real deathblow to any career. Thank you, Warner Books. My editor subsequently told me that he could never buy another book from me under my own name there. This policy continues 2 editors later. (Important lesson: burned bridges don’t rebuild themselves.)
My first fantasy novel from Avon sold much better — enough to turn a small profit for the publisher, my editor told me, and I was promising enough for them to buy a second fantasy novel. Which they proceeded to sit on. And sit on. And sit on. I was on the bottom of their list; my books were the first bumped when they wanted to move things around. Finally the publish-by date in our contract passed, and my agent tried to renegotiate without success: in exchange for letting them keep the novel, he wanted it bumped to a better slot. When Avon refused, he withdrew it. John Douglas — who was the senior SF editor at Avon at the time (but not my editor) — advised me that this was a career mistake, but I listened to my agent. (Douglas was right. But so was my agent — if Avon had been allowed to push me around this way, they would never have treated me better later on. So it became a lose-lose situation. And of course I lost.) The sales figures for Rememory were available by then to other publishers, so … dead as a fantasy writer, too.
After trying unsuccessfully to sell proposals for my next novel few novels, I backed away and decided to rethink things. I was fortunately enough to get a job in publishing — SF editor for Byron Preiss Visual Publications — so I threw myself into it and started to find out how the industry really works and what could be done to relaunch a really botched career. It’s taken me 7 years, but I think I’ve succeeded. Over the last 2 years alone, I’ve put more than 600,000 copies of my novels into print. (My in-print total is just over a million books now, if you include anthologies I’ve edited. By the end of 1997, I’ll have more than a million novels alone in print.) So I think I can speak with some authority, especially as I prepare to return to writing original science fiction novels again. And this time, as I’ve said, I’m reasonably certain I can sell them.
Mindset is important. You know you have some talent. You wouldn’t have been able to sell that first novel otherwise. But that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your writing skills. Keep an open mind. If someone offers you advice, consider it carefully. You never know, but it just might be incredibly useful. Every time I think I’ve learned it all, someone says something to me — even just a sentence — which has a profound effect on my writing. [Note 1]
Keep your calm. Concentrate on fixing the problems with your career, not finding fault with yourself or others. I know a lot of bitter failed writers, and their anger is always self-destructive. Some of them refuse to read SF trade journals because they find news of their peers’ big advances depressing, especially when they can’t sell their own novels. I know from experience that it’s easy to fall into self-pity. For quite a while, I was bitter about how publishers had screwed up my career. Ultimately, though, I kept coming back to one thing: these were my books, not the publisher’s. If I had known more about what I was doing at the time, I might have avoided some of the traps I fell into. Knowledge equals power. Find out all you can about publishing, do your best work, and avoids the pitfalls you know about: that should help the next stage of your career take off.
MAINTAIN YOUR VISIBILITY IN THE MARKETPLACE
I feel very strongly that all good writing — no matter the subject, as long as it’s somehow related to the field — is helpful to your career. If you can’t sell novels, try short stories or non-fiction.
When I decided I wanted to keep writing science fiction, I realized I needed to keep my byline visible. Since magazines don’t stick around very long, I decided to concentrate on anthologies. But it would not be enough for me just to place a scattering of stories in anthologies. I wanted readers to come away from reading a Betancourt story thinking that mine was the best in the book. (Or, short of that, one of the best.) This is not as hard as it sounds. It simply means doing your best work, no matter what the anthology. I suspect from nearly two decades of anthology reading that quite a few established writers take invitations to theme anthologies for granted and turn in slap-dash work for quick money. There are usually only 2-4 top-rate stories in any given theme anthology, and the rest are competent but unexceptional.
Did concentrating on anthologies help my career? I’m not sure. But it certainly didn’t hurt, and it kept me writing. And both LOCUS and SF CHRONICLE singled out some of my short stories for praise. A few years, I earned more writing short fiction than I did when I was selling original novels.
FAILED WRITERS WANTED: MEDIA FICTION
Several years into my career collapse, I decided to pursue work writing media fiction. (When I say “media fiction,” do not think just of STAR TREK and STAR WARS. There are lines of novels based around just about every science fiction, fantasy, and horror series on television or the movies, from THE X-FILES to HERCULES to SEAQUEST to QUANTUM LEAP. There are also gaming companies and computer companies who want to turn successful products into book franchises.) Writing media fiction is not for everyone, however; if you don’t like the idea of working in other people’s worlds, you shouldn’t try. Yes, the money is tempting, but it’s better in the long run to produce excellent work.
I found that in media fiction, a failed science fiction writer actually has a few advantages:
- You’re a professional writer, familiar with deadlines and writing at a publishable level
- You’ve shown that you can complete a book-length work of fiction
- You’re available immediately for that rush job (hey, you don’t have any other books under contract, right?)
Media fiction can undo some of the harm your career has suffered. Let’s face it: books are a commodity from a publisher’s standpoint. If you’ve failed as a writer before, a publisher will view you as damaged goods. After all, why take a chance on relaunching an established low-level writer when a new writer might REALLY take off? (Yes, I am paraphrasing a real SF editor’s words here.)
Media fiction, on the other hand, is driven not so much by author as by series. An editor wants a competent writer, someone who will do a good job on time for a reasonable advance. Your sales record plays no part in selling you for a project, just your talent. Consider these immediate benefits:
- You’ll sell tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of books
- You may end up on best-seller lists
- You’ll be paid a lot of money
Down-sides? There are a few:
- It’s work for hire.
- Deadlines can be insane.
- You have to please many people besides your editor
- Literary snobs will doubtless look down on you for “selling out.” Just as many before you sold out, ruining their critical respectability. Like Joe Haldeman, Orson Scott Card, George Alec Effinger, Jerry Pournelle, and James Blish,to name just five. Yes, that’s sarcasm. But the snobs will still look down on you. Myopia is part of the snobbery.
- It’s a trap. You can become very content writing one or two media fiction books a year. Maybe more. With some series, that’s enough to provide a comfortable living. I didn’t become a science fiction writer to work in other peoples’ universes for the rest of my life. Occasionally, sure. But I have my own stories to tell, and I assume others do, too. Never forget that media fiction is a means to an end.
Many writers do not take media fiction seriously. In my opinion, this is a bad career move. You want to impress ANY reader who runs across ANY of your work, and you especially want to lure your media fiction readers over to your original books, when you return to writing them.
Look at it this way. If Writer A sells 25,000 copies of his brilliant new mass-market paperback and generally pleases his audience, and 20% of them decide to buy all of Writer A’s other books, that’s an added 5,000 readers per book. If Writer B sells 500,000 copies of a Star Wars novel and 2% of them are impressed enough to buy all of Writer B’s other books, that’s 10,000 extra readers she has added. You see how quickly it can help.
FAILED WRITERS WANTED: PACKAGED FICTION
There is one other publishing option open to failed science fiction writers: working for book packagers. Book packagers — excuse me, book PRODUCERS, as they now like to be called — are the broker-dealers of publishing. They create book projects, sell them to publishers, and then do (or arrange to have done) all the work, taking a percentage off the top. (How much? As much as they can get away with! And you would be shocked at how much they HAVE gotten away with. And with writers [and agents] who should have known better, too.)
Any published science fiction writer is of potential interest to a book packager. A packager has a single goal: to make money with as little effort as possible. To do this, he must provide books of an acceptable quality to fulfill his contract with a publisher. As a science fiction writer with a number of novels to your credit, surprise, you’re a desirable commodity!
A packager will view all professional writers this way:
- you’re a pro (meet deadlines/finish books/write well, etc.) In short, you know what you’re doing and won’t require any real training to do your job well.
- your name might well sell a few extra copies
But all is not as it seems in packager-land. There is a de facto tier system among the books. When I worked for a packager, anyone could look at what our science fiction division turned out and see what out “A” and “B” list was.
“A” list books and series included prestige hardcovers (for example, the “Dragonflight” line of YA fantasy hardcovers which Byron Preiss Visual Publications, Inc. produced for Atheneum). The “B” list included most series books set in worlds created by famous SF writers (or created by us after licensing the rights to their works). “B” books appear only in mass-market paperback.
“A” list books often have top authors attached to them before they are sold to publishers. Often they won’t exist if the top author doesn’t agree to take part. As a result, the top author gets a strong deal: usually 50%.
“B” list books are sold based on the nature of the project. Any author can be plugged in to the project to write it; it doesn’t matter WHO writes it as long as it’s done quickly, competently, and most of all cheaply. “B” list books are cash cows … and the packager views them that way. An author can expect perhaps 25% of the money received from such a book. The “B” list can further be divided into series written by a single author and series written by multiple authors.
“A” and “B” list books generally are pretty easy to tell from one another. I can think of only one such project, in fact (Roger MacBride Allen’s excellent “Robot” novels based on the work of Isaac Asimov — which were published in hardcover in the U.K. and trade paperback in the U.S.) where what might have been a “B” list series became an “A” list series because it was handled so well by everyone involved, from packager to author to publisher.
Let’s look at “A” list projects first. Most of these carry a certain prestige: hardcover or trade paperback publication, plus the packager’s interest and attention (which generally results in better-than-average cover art and cover copy). Generally, I think writing an “A” book for a packager is a good idea for anybody, if the money is acceptable and your time allows.
“B” list books, though, are a different story.
The multiple-writer series is becoming increasingly rare, since it’s easier for a packager to assign a whole series to a single author. (Advantages: less continuity problems, a single voice in the narrative thread, and less paperwork and mental juggling. It is MUCH easier to keep track of one author than six.) It also allows a packager to offer a much bigger contract to the author: $5,000 for one book doesn’t sound as appealing as $30,000 for six books, does it?
But consider these disadvantages:
- Most packagers are notoriously slow to pay. This is because they aren’t the publisher, and you must not only wait for the publisher to pay the packager, you must wait for the packager to pay you.
- Over the last 5 years, I have yet to see a “B” list series book earn out its advance; this means the author does not receive more money in royalties. (Foreign sales are few and far between, but they do provide some added income.)
- The author expends great personal time and effort on the project; the $30,000 example cited above sounds good, but if the project takes all of your writing time and energy for 24 months (1 book every 4 months), suddenly it’s $15,000 per year. That’s barely better than minimum wage. Okay, maybe you can write them in 18 months (1 book every 3 months): that’s $20,000 per year. Or you can hack them out in 12 months (1 book every 2 months) and never mind the quality.
- If the project fails, the writer is going to be blamed as much as the packager. (Maybe moreso: it’s in the packager’s best interest to shift the blame to you. It can be as subtle as the packager saying to the editor, “Well, I know Author A’s heart wasn’t in it, so we’ll use someone else next time who can give us one hundred percent of his effort.”)
- If the project succeeds, the credit will go to the licensed property as much as to you. (“It sold because it was based on Famous Writer C’s “XANTHOIDS OF THE UNIVERSE” series, not because New Writer B wrote it.”) And to some extent this is true. But it was your writing that kept readers coming back for the next 5 books of the series.
- I have yet to find a writer who didn’t emerge from a 6-book fast-deadline series feeling burned out.
I’m not saying NOT to write a “B” list book for a packager. Just that I, personally, think it’s not helpful. It will give you some money, but your time is better spent elsewhere if you’re interested in building your career. Early on, when these series books were new to the science fiction field, they had a novelty value and could attract some attention. That day is long past. Proceed, if you must, with open eyes. And I STRONGLY suggest you never deal with a packager unless you have a good agent. A VERY good agent. [Note 2]
AND WHAT ABOUT AGENTS?
I do not have an agent now. I did for nearly ten years. Firing him was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, since he was a good friend. He even came to my wedding.
But when I decided I wanted to jump-start my career, I decided I had to handle my own books in a more hands-on manner, talking to editors myself, doing my own submissions, etc. This is not for everyone, but I know I’m giving my own work all the attention it needs. I wasn’t getting that from my old agent, who had a lot of clients and only so much time to devote to me.
Caveat: If (when) I need an agent again, I will go out and get one. I’m not ashamed to admit it when I need help. Most of what I have been doing, though, is media fiction with a boilerplate contract, so having an agent would not have gotten me more money or a better deal. [Side comment: I also know a good deal about contracts from having worked as both a literary agent and as a book packager. If you feel at all uncomfortable in submitting books, or in handling contracts, get or keep an agent for that. This article is based on my personal experiences; what works for me might not work for you.]
ADDENDUM: I have acquired a new agent since writing this article. He is proving incredibly useful. By removing myself from the negotiation process on my next book, I have allowed him to ask for more money — a lot more — than I would have asked for this book on my own. He is trying to position me as a “big” author with a lot of breakout potential. Wish us well.
OTHER THINGS YOU CAN DO TO AID YOUR COMEBACK
- Prepare a quote sheet to include whenever you write to an editor. This can be pulled from published reviews or (with permission) quotes from famous friends and colleagues. Don’t be ashamed to ask for a quote if you know someone famous who has read your work & they raved about it to you. (On the other hand, don’t pester famous people you don’t know who HAVEN’T read your work!) Keep your quote page to a single side of a single sheet of paper.
- Put up a home page on the World Wide Web (the Internet) to promote your work. Ask your Internet Service Provider for more information; you may be entitled to a free home page through them. Or visit SFF.NET (http://www.sff.net) for information on obtaining a free home page. (Internet Impaired? Do not despair! Chances are you have friends who are Internet Enabled. They might even put up a web page for you, if you ask Very Nicely. In fact, they might WANT to put up a home page for you, but be too shy to ask. If not, they can probably steer you to someone who can. Several active SFWA and HWA members supplement their writing income with web page design services, too; ask around.)
- Keep in touch with the science fiction community. (You don’t have to live in Eugene, Oregon.) Read the trade journals. Visit online places where other SF and fantasy writer congregate and participate. Write letters to friends. Find the other pros in your area and invite them over for a barbecue: whatever it takes. Remember, although writing is a solitary activity (under most circumstances), you are not alone. Many others are going and have gone through the same things you do. If you ask for advice, chances are someone — or many someones — will freely give it. The science fiction, fantasy, and horror field share a long social tradition and are very helpful. But only if you ask.
OTHER THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW: HOW PUBLISHING REALLY WORKS (short version)
Publishing is a mess. No brief article can possibly tell you everything you need to know about every single publishing company. And yet you cannot simply trust your publishers to do their jobs right and make you a best-selling writer. There are a few things you MUST know. I’m going to generalize here, so please bear with me if these comments don’t quite mesh with Publisher X or Publisher Y.
A publisher puts out a specific number of books each month. These books appear in many different genres — best-sellers, mysteries, thrillers, horror, science fiction, romance, etc. Out of the science fiction books — let’s say there are 5 mass-market paperbacks for the same of simplicity — each is assigned a specific slot.
Slot #1: Science Fiction Lead Title. The publisher puts foil on the cover, die-stamping, a few ads in trade journals, and makes available some advertising money. Maybe springs for a book dump or an endcap in the stores.
Slot #2: Fantasy Lead Title. The publisher puts foil on the cover, die-stamping, a few ads in trade journals, and makes available some advertising money. Maybe springs for a book dump or an endcap in the stores.
Slot #3: Reprint of hardcover. The publisher expects this book to sell reasonably well, since the hardcover did okay and got some great quotes, which are plastered all over the covers. Maybe a big picture of the book in the company’s SF ads for the month.
Slot #4: Original fantasy novel. Fantasy sells better than science fiction, so this book gets slot #4. No promotion, except for a tiny mention in the company’s science fiction ad for the month.
Slot #5: Original science fiction novel. No promotion, except for a tiny mention in the company’s science fiction ad for the month.
With only five books to choose from, you would think a bookstore could automatically order all of them, right? Not so. Think of how many publishers are out there doing science fiction and fantasy, then think about them all competing for a small number of rack spaces in the some bookstore.
Depending on how much rack space is available in a given month, a publisher will almost certainly order the two leads (one science fiction, one fantasy). These two slots are usually reserved for writers who are already best-sellers. The rest of the slots get assigned to books which are not expected to sell as well. The fifth slot won’t sell many copies at all.
You want to get your books into as high of a slot as you possibly can. If you can persuade your publisher that you’re going to be the next William Gibson, more power to you — you deserve the lead slot.
Realistically, once you return to writing fiction, and before you negotiate a contract for that new book which your editor wants, you MUST find out which slot your book will be assigned. Don’t be afraid to speak up. The editor must have some idea of where the book will appear or that editor wouldn’t be able to make an offer. (The offer will be based on how many books the editor estimates his or her company will sell. Part of determining this number comes from doing a P&L — profit and loss estimate — which deals in part with how many copies will be sold and at what cover price. An editor must have an idea of what slot a book will go into before he or she can do a P&L.)
If you’ve worked years to make your great comeback with your brilliant new novel, do you want it going into Slot #5? If that’s the best your editor can do, ask if he or she can leave that as an open offer while you look elsewhere. You can always come back later, if you have to. It is more important to find a publisher who is committed to doing your book right, or you’ll wind up right back where you started.
SLOTS VS. SELL-THROUGH
A 3rd or 4th or 5th slot does not have to be the kiss of death. There is a second figure which is just as important as the total number of your books which have been shipped into stores. That’s the “sell-through” — essentially, the percentage of books sold. If you ship 10,000 copies of your book in slot #5, then you sell 9,500 of them the first month and reorders start pouring in, of course the publisher is going to notice. A 95% sell-through is remarkable and excellent. It doesn’t happen often. You can bet that everyone from sales-reps to bookstore owners will order extra copies of your next book as a result, to meet the anticipated demand. And that your next book from the publisher will get pushed up to a higher slot.
Conversely, if you’re in the lead slot and you ship 50,000 copies to sell 5,000 for a 10% sell-through, you can bet that your career is going to spiral downwards pretty fast.
Middle-ground is more to be expected.
BUILDING ON YOUR SUCCESSES
Okay: you’ve been working hard for three or four years now to restart your career. You’ve published two dozen short stories and several media tie-in novels. What now?
Clearly, if your media novels have gone well and you have maintained a good relationship with your media-fiction publisher, the time has come for you to try to sell an original novel again. Talk to your media fiction editor first. Explain that you love working on media properties, but you want to try your hand at something new. Something more ambitious. Ask them if they want to see an outline for the new novel you’ve been working on. If your media fiction editor says, “Yes,” you’re all set: your foot is in the door.
If your media fiction editor cannot support your attempt to write an original novel, look elsewhere. You now have quite a few books in print which have sold well. If you’ve hit the best-seller lists, that’s another plus. Query editors at publishing companies where your books haven’t bombed; chances are, they’ll be fairly receptive. Especially when they see that quote sheet full of raves (remember, you prepared it for a reason) and you tell them you have half a million books in print.
- When I was just starting out, I persuaded Kevin O’Donnell, Jr. to read a short story of mine. He went through the manuscript and circled every passive verb. Ouch. If you’ve never had this done to you, do it yourself: go through a random chapter or short story and circle every instance of the verbs “to be,” “to seem,” and “to feel.” Then try to rewrite each sentence punching things up with more action-oriented words. It will bring scenes vividly to life.When I was an editor at Byron Preiss, I did this to a formerly well-established author whose career had likewise collapsed. He was disgruntled at first, and complained bitterly that his literary idols didn’t avoid passive constructions, but several months later he admitted it had profoundly affected his writing style for the better.
- At a writer’s workshop about ten years ago, one of the critiquers mentioned that she had noticed that none of my short stories had any emotional impact on her at the end. I didn’t make her care about the story’s outcome or what happened to the characters.It’s one thing to read that a story “must involve a character changing in some way.” That’s very dry and academic and quite correct. But it’s quite another thing to come to the conclusion that character changes must bring about a mood change IN THE READER. You must in some way touch the reader’s emotions. This first short story I wrote after having this revelation sold on its first submission, to Amazing Stories.
- Viewpoint must be conveyed paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word. Basically, every paragraph must contain at least one (and preferably more) internal cues which reflect the viewpoint character’s thoughts and feelings as he or she experiences the ongoing story. These cues can be commentary, observations, feelings, or thoughts.
My observation on viewpoint is not a hard and fast rule; I know this form of writing will not appeal to everyone … or even work for everyone. But it was my most recent Great Revelation (about 2 years ago), thanks to one of my media fiction editors. I think such a strict attention to viewpoint now gives my fiction an immediacy and a deep emotional resonance that it lacked previously. In short, it works for me. [back]
[Note 2] You cannot be too careful with your career. It is up to you to make sure your interests are protected at all times, and this is especially true with packagers. (Do not rely on your agent to protect you, if you have one. It’s an agent’s job, yes, but it’s YOUR career. The buck stops with you.)
A few things to be aware of when dealing with packagers:
- Watch for contracts which contain the line “an advance of $xx against a 50% share of ALL FUTURE ROYALTIES.” This sounds like you’re getting half of everything, but you might not be. Here is a hypothetical case: assume the packager received an advance of $15,000. The packager offers you $5,000 as an advance against 50% of all FUTURE royalties. That means the packager keeps $10,000 of the advance, and the book must earn out $15,000 dollars before you see a penny in royalties. This isn’t fair. You need to find out what the publisher’s advance was and insist on 50% of that AS WELL AS 50% of all FUTURE royalties. An easy way to get around this is to insist on 50% of all income from the text of the book. (This still allows the packager to make his profit on production work, to which you are not entitled.)
- When a contract promises (to arbitrarily pick a number) a royalty of 25% of the packager’s royalty receipts, you aren’t getting a 25% royalty on the book’s cover price. You’re getting 25% of the packager’s royalty — generally around 10%. So you would get a 2.5% royalty on the cover price. (2% if the packager gets an 8% royalty; 1.5% if the packager gets a 6% royalty, etc.)
- Packagers may mislead, misdirect, and otherwise distort the truth. Get everything in writing. Even if it doesn’t seem necessary. Then check up to make sure it’s true.
Here’s an example of how an author might be misdirected as to his or her due share of moneys: The packager creates a project with Famous Writer A. They agree that Famous Writer A will get 33.33% of all revenue generated by this project. (Famous Writer A assumes that the packager will take 33.33% and the author will take 33.33%, which seems fair.) The packager then signs up New Writer B, offering 25%. New Writer B thinks this sounds fair — after all, it’s Famous Writer A’s creation, so Famous Writer A must be taking 50% off the top, right? That must leave 50%, which the packager and New Writer B will split evenly, right? Of course not. From this scenario, Famous Writer A gets 33.33%, New Writer B gets 25%, and the packager gets 41.67%. Basically, you need to find out how much each party is taking an insist on an equitable share. If Famous Writer A really IS taking 50%, then 25 IS fair. Don’t be afraid to stick up for your own interests. Your packager doesn’t have anything to hide, right?
Packagers cry poor all the time. Ignore it. The text (which you will be providing) is only part of what a typical packager contracts to supply to a publisher. In addition, a packager may provide any or all of the following: editing, copy-editing, typesetting, proofreading, cover art, cover copy, graphic design, and/or finished, printed, bound books delivered to the publisher’s warehouse. A packager will make a profit — often thousands of dollars — from these other production chores. EVEN IF THEY PAID YOU EVERY PENNY OF THE ADVANCE FOR THE WRITTEN PART OF THE BOOK, THEY WOULD STILL MAKE A PROFIT! Don’t forget that, since it will give you extra leverage in negotiating to get your fair share.