Interview With Literary Attorney and Author Susan Spann

I met Susan Spann a couple years ago at Colorado Gold and immediately liked her. She is honest, easy to work with, and gives her all to everything she does. I had the opportunity to speak with her recently about the necessity of attorneys, and about her recently published novel. Since most authors (including best-selling one’s) have day jobs, I thought this would be especially insightful.

Hi Susan. You are both an author and a literary attorney. How did you get into doing both? 

I’ve practiced law since 1997, but I’ve been writing as long as I can remember.

I started my practice as a transactional property attorney, which basically means I represented clients on contract and general business matters relating to all different kinds of property—from shopping center development to intellectual property licenses. Over time, my personal preferences led me to focus on publishing and other forms of specialty business contracts.

Although I’ve always loved fiction, I didn’t focus on writing it until after attending the Maui Writers’ Conference in 2004. Since then, I’ve written almost every day. Like my specialty legal practice, writing success didn’t happen overnight. I wrote four unpublished manuscripts before I wrote my debut Shinobi Mystery, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013) which debuted this July. CLAWS is the first in a series involving ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo, who solve mysteries in samurai-era Kyoto. 

Claws of the Cat Cover (50)

 For me, practicing law and writing mysteries seems like a natural combination. Both allow me to focus on details, “help” someone in need, and spend quality time with the written word.

What exactly does a literary attorney do?

In my case, “drink a lot of coffee.”

Also, I write and negotiate contracts and other documents. I’m a transactional attorney, which means I don’t handle litigation (lawsuits) or spend much time in court. For the most part, I’m drafting or negotiating various contracts, either for authors, for publishers, or for one of my other business clients, which range from trademark clients, to restaurateurs, to app and software developers.

In addition to publishing law, I specialize in unique or unusual business contracts, mostly those which involve an intellectual property component (such as trademark, trade dress, trade secret, or app and software design). About 80% of my work is related to publishing in some way.

Why is this important?

Because authors are notoriously bad at reading contracts. Not that I blame them. Legalese is as much its own language as Mandarin, and just as difficult to parse if you don’t speak it fluently.

Is there any risk for authors who go it alone without an attorney?

The short answer here is “yes.” Authors who represent themselves, without either an agent or an attorney, take an enormous risk.  Publishing contracts aren’t simple, and the ones that look “short and sweet” on the surface are often the riskiest of all.

I receive regular emails from authors who signed a “simple contract” and discovered only later that it didn’t protect their rights or give them options if the publisher (or the book itself) didn’t live up to expectations. Unfortunately, after the contract is signed there’s often nothing I (or anyone else) can do. Those emails make me desperately sad. I wish all authors would get professional review before signing a publishing deal.

Do self-published authors need literary attorneys? Why or why not?

Yes, they do. Many self-published authors don’t realize that the Amazon terms of use (as well as the terms of use for any other publishing site) are a legally binding contract. Many Internet-based self-publishing sites have terms of use that allow an author to terminate at any time, which minimizes the risks, but not all self-publishing options have those terms. An author who self-publishes without full understanding of the terms could be making a big mistake.

In addition, many self-published authors (though not all) plan to transition to hybrid careers, where some of their works are also published traditionally. That transition can be dangerous without an attorney (or agent) to help with the legal aspects of the shift.

Finally, self-published authors don’t have a publisher helping with licenses and permissions for cover art, excerpts, and other uses of copyrighted material. Without an attorney’s assistance, an author could end up sued for copyright infringement for using art or other copyrighted material without a proper contract or release.

Self-published authors generally do everything for themselves. What advice could you offer them to help them out?

Remember that being self-published doesn’t absolve you of legal responsibility. In fact, it increases your exposure. Not only are you liable for everything in your book, but you’re also liable for licensing cover art, filing for copyright with the U.S. Copyright office, licensing and contracting for printing and distribution (as appropriate) and all of the other legal functions of a publisher. Publishers do much more, from a legal perspective, than print out books. They enter into many different contracts and legal agreements. Self-published authors are taking on all of those legal responsibilities, whether they realize it or not—and ignorance of the law is not a defense to liability.

I’m very supportive of authors who choose to self-publish. My client list contains quite a few. But I caution authors to remember that self-publishing isn’t “the easy road” or a choice an author should make from impatience. It’s a business decision, and requires just as much thought and planning as opening any other kind of business.

What is the most important take-away that anyone considering publishing a novel needs to know regardless of their publishing track (traditional or independent publishing)?

Don’t rush the process.

Publishing takes time. Protecting your rights takes careful planning and qualified legal review. Regardless of the publishing path an author chooses, trying to rush the process almost always results in heartbreak—and often, legal injury as well.

I want to talk to Susan Spann the author now. Tell me about your writing practice. What do you do that works for you.

I murder my imaginary friends.

Also, I “touch the ball” every day. It doesn’t matter whether I’m blogging, writing, or editing, I spend at least one hour (and usually more like 3) producing some kind of non-legal writing every day. When I started this, back in 2004, I couldn’t manage even an hour—my goal then was 15 minutes a day. I’ve discovered, in the years since then, that the key to productivity and improvement really is as simple as “butt in the chair and fingers on the keys.” (It’s also more complicated, but that’s a story for another day.)

You have worked very hard at developing a social media platform. How did you go about doing that? How difficult was it?

I’ve taught myself blogging, Twitter, and Facebook in much the same way I taught myself about writing. Each one started with “15 minutes a day” and worked up from there. Handled properly, social media can be great fun, too. I have to put myself on a schedule, though, so I don’t get lost in the process.

I typically check in on Facebook and Twitter 3-4 times a day, with a goal of spending ten minutes updating my status and checking in with people I follow or talk with. If you see me on social media, it’s me and it’s live—I don’t pre-schedule tweets or Facebook updates.

What aspect of social media has created the best results for you (if there is one)?

Different aspects help me in different ways. I keep in touch with my critique group via a private Facebook page. Twitter keeps me in contact with my writing friends (and also with readers), and the blog lets me share on a slightly longer-form basis.

If I had to pick just one, I’d go with Twitter. That’s surprising, even to me, because I resisted joining Twitter at first. Three years down the line, however, I’ve grown to love it. Not only does it keep me in touch with people I’d never otherwise meet (many of whom have become “offline” friends as well), but the short-form nature of Twitter has helped my writing. It’s surprising how careful you become when you’re restricted to 140 characters.

How did you learn your craft of writing fiction?

Reading, writing, and editing—my own work  and that of others. I’d like to say there’s a shortcut, but it took me 500,000 words to hone my skills to the point where I was ready for publication.

I’ve attended writers’ conferences regularly since 2004 and read some books on craft. (My favorites are Donald Maass’s WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL and Stephen King’s ON WRITING—titles most writers will have heard before.) I’m part of a great critique group, and I read blogs avidly looking for writing tips. But all of that pales beside the doing. Practice makes perfect, or at least publishable, and that’s what matters.

What is the most important element to creating a work of fiction that people overlook?

Revision. Most of the authors I know love writing but loathe revision. In order to polish a book to its highest shine, you have to revise—not once, but many times. Each of my novels goes through nine full drafts before my agent sees it, and will go through 2-3 more before it appears on a bookstore shelf. A lot of authors think they don’t need more than 1-2 editing passes. In my experience, novels benefit from more attention than that.

What was the most important thing you learned when you published that you didn’t know beforehand?

How important it is to take time to enjoy the process.

Right after I signed my contract with Minotaur Books, my agent, Sandra Bond, gave me one of the most important pieces of writing advice I have ever received. She said, “enjoy the process.”

She—and others also—still have to remind me about that once in a while. I live and work in a high state of stress and chaos. But I do take time to celebrate even the little milestones, and that…as one of my favorite poems says…has made all the difference.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

If this is your dream, don’t quit, no matter how hard or unforgiving the road may seem.

It took me nine years and five manuscripts to reach publication. There were days when I would have given up, except that writing fiction is so much a part of who I am that without it I wouldn’t be anything at all. At times, I worried that I would die, alone and unremembered, surrounded by mewing cats and dozens of unpublished manuscripts. In the worst of times, I imagined my son coming back from my funeral and erasing 67 rejected novels from my computer’s hard drive. (Like all writers, I have a solid grasp of melodrama…)

But I made a decision, back in 2004, that I would write until I died or got published … and that’s exactly what I did.

I can’t promise a person’s first novel will sell. I can’t promise the second one will, or the third. In my case, it took five. But I do know that anyone with the will to keep learning, the stubbornness to keep writing, and the fortitude not to give up can get to “yes.” I did it. You can too.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to chat with you today. I really enjoyed it!

Susan Headshot (2013)

Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on publishing and business law. Her debut Shinobi Mystery, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books) released in July 2013. Susan’s hobbies include traditional archery, martial arts, rock climbing, and raising seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find Susan online at, or on Twitter @SusanSpann, where she created the #PubLaw hashtag to provide legal and business information for writers. Susan will be speaking at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold conference in September 2013.


  1. Thank you so much for the interview, Susie! I loved having the opportunity to talk about my practice as well as my writing. I can’t wait to see you in September at Colorado Gold!!

  2. Great interview and good advice. As a SP author, I am trying to be super careful about copyright and protecting myself, but as things get increasingly more busy, the more I realize I need some legal help!

    1. Hi Angela, congrats on being a SP author! Many SP authors don’t consider legal issues, so I am so glad that Susan Spann was willing to share with us this important perspective.

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