Good Old Online Trust

Apart from John Grisham, I don’t think many American writers like lawyers. (Who knows? Perhaps even Grisham himself doesn’t like them. Otherwise, why would he prefer to be a writer instead of a lawyer?)

To the rest of the world, the Americans are as famous for their dependence on the judicial system as for their freedom to own and use guns. Unfortunately, such dependence comes with a sense of distrust — if it could be helped, one would prefer never to have anything to do with lawyers.

Most Americans seemed to believe that lawyers know how to manipulate not only the judicial system but also their clients. They can get you out of trouble, yes; but they can also tear you into pieces, like a bad wolf. Lawyers are such a unique species that people are willing to accept their existence, in the same way that a poisonous snake is allowed to live because it kills pests such as rats and wild rabbits. But, unless it is really necessary, who will want to be nearby a poisonous snake?

I started out as a freelance translator. One thing that always amazes me is how two parties can agree to have a translation project done via email — the translator faithfully completes the task and the client faithfully pays the money, with absolutely no contract involved. Obviously, if the client fails to pay, there is nothing the translator can do apart from accepting the bad luck. But such failure seldom happens. It is truly astonishing that when the good old trust between two people becomes increasingly rare in our real world, it is thriving in the cyberspace.

In recent days I have been in touch with an American writer who wants to have his books published and promoted as Chinese e-books. Let’s simply call him Joe. There is a formal contract that I use on such occasions, which clearly stipulates the rights of authors and the obligations of this publisher. However, when I presented it to Joe, he refused to even look at it.

“Too many words, too many legal terms. It hurts my head,” he complained.

Joe claimed he has always hated lawyers. He once sent a one-page letter to a lawyer and received a 40-page response full of legalese. In fact, one of Joe’s friends, whom he had known for 30 years, became a lawyer recently, and that was the end of their friendship. This friend presented his mother-in-law a 90-dollar bill for some private but simple Q&A, and her son later came, spat on the bill, then threw it at his face, etc, etc…

So what other option did I have? I tried to explain it as clearly as I could, of course. “Look,” I emailed Joe. “I have personally examined and re-examined this contract to ensure that it is suitable for a writer — even a writer such as me whose mother tongue is not English. Besides, the aim of the contract is to protect your rights so that you can sue me if I end up doing something wrong!”

No, Joe still wouldn’t budge. He eventually responded with a simple demand, which consists of only 8 short sentences — (1) he has and will always have all the rights to his books; (2) he allows me to produce, publish and sell his books as Chinese e-books; (3) we agree on a price for the Chinese e-books; (4) we agree on how much he and I will get from the net proceeds; (5) I mention his other books whenever possible; (6) we bear the production costs independently; (7) I pay his share of the net proceeds quarterly; and (8) our agreement is not exclusive.

There. Done. That is our agreement. Joe couldn’t even be bothered to sign his name. “That’ll do,” he said. Honestly, when I saw this in his email, I felt like that little pig in the movie Babe, looking up at its owner who kindly smiles down at him. “That’ll do, Pig, that’ll do.”

Well, I also felt like putting my face on the American dollar note: “In Me We Trust”. The moral of this story is that sometimes you can trust people. Even on the Internet, even in this day and age, there are people who will do as they have promised.

Still, somehow this episode also reminds me of another writer whose daytime job is a lawyer. When we started talking about a Chinese e-book deal, the first thing he said was: “I have to warn you — I am a lawyer, so if you try to trick me, I will know.”

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