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Julie Barrett is a freelance writer and photographer based in Plano, TX.

Writer On The Bottom

Fresh (almost) daily from Julie Barrett


I'm on a deadline, dashing this out while the morning caffeine sets in. This week has brought one piece of bad news after another for people trying to make a living (or at least a pittance) by their words.

First, the SFWA has declared the Random House Hydra imprint to not be a qualifying market for membership. John Scalzi (current SFWA president) posted a delicious rant (can a rant be delicious?) on his blog. Later in the day he obtained a contract from Alibi, another RH imprint, and broke down the salient points

In a nutshell, the writer gets nothing up front, and expenses are deducted from royalties. Those expenses aren't really specified. It's a life-of-copyright rights grab for everything - foreign language, video games, action figures, whatever you can think of, and in whatever media can be exploited now and in the future. As Victoria Strauss pointed out there (and has repeatedly pointed out), life-of-copyright is standard, but often balanced with a clear reversion of rights clause that states how the author can regain control of their work and under what circumstances. (Most anthology contracts I sign are for all rights, but there's a crystal clear reversion clause stating that the rights are returned after a specified period of time - usually one or two years after publication. And when the publisher exploits those rights, I get paid royalties! On top of my advance!)

Some writers may look at that contract and think, "yeah, it's bad, but Random House!" As John points out, what incentive does a publisher have to get that book into the hands of readers when the writer is paying all of the expenses? If you sign on with a "traditional" imprint of Random House, you'll get an advance and royalties (they may or may not be lousy, but you'd get a check), and they take care of the expenses of cover design, layout, editing, distribution, and so on. They have an incentive to get that book into the hands of readers because they need to make money off of it. Do you see the difference?

This week several people on a board for writers have been questioning a publisher about their "subsidy" practices. The publisher in question claims that only a few authors are charged a subsidy. But when a press engages in that practice, it cheapens their entire operation. Again, what incentive do they have to get my book in the hands of readers when I've covered their costs of publication? 

Yes, yes. The business is shifting. More presses are foregoing the advance for a higher share of royalties on the back end. That's working out great for some writers, and for those presses that actually do what a commercial publisher is supposed to do. They're creating quality products and building a strong reader base. Plus, they have a track record of paying up. It's not all gloom and doom, and some presses are proving that particular model works. But in no way are authors charged for publication.

The other big story making the writerly rounds is Nate Thayer's exchange with The Atlantic, and the rambling response from one of the editors at the publication. Essentially, Thayer was asked to submit a revised and shortened version of a piece he'd had published elsewhere. And by the way, they couldn't pay him. Wonkette has an interesting take on this, including the observation that someone at that publication is clearly making money. Why can't they pay for content?

I know we're in a recession, but the downward pressure on rates started long before that, when the shift from print to electronic media began to take place. I'm not sure there's an answer. At least not a simple one. But clearly, the business of shifting expenses on the writer, and the doubling down on the concept that the creatives are the last to be paid puts a tremendous burden on those who create the content that generates the income in the first place.

I knew going in that it would be tough to make a living entirely from writing, but what happens as more creatives leave this business and go into fields that pay the bills? Hey, flipping burgers pays better than nothing. 

The flip side of this is the Internet culture that expects content for free or a very low price. Just look at all the reviews on Amazon dinging publishers for high book prices. Half the time when I go to my local newspaper web site, there are comments dinging the paper for hiding articles behind a paywall. Well, how do you expect the reporters to get paid? Used to be few people balked at a subscription for a print newspaper or magazine, but now that they're all online, should they be free? How does this create a sustainable business? Again, I don't have the answers, but these questions are worth asking.

It's not greedy to ask what's in it for you before you sign a contract. It's not wrong to ask for assistance in parsing one, either. Don't sign a bad contract because you think it's your only recourse. Most likely it isn't, and perhaps that bad contract can be renegotiated to something better. If not, is it really worth it to consign that book to a life-of-copyright contract where you have little hope of seeing anything off the back end? What if it happens to be a breakout book? 

Be careful out there.

Tags: Writing  Publishing

Filed under: Writing   Publishing         
3/7/2013 9:14:34 AM
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