Notes From Purgatory: On Contributor’s Copies
There’s been an ongoing debate for years concerning whether a contributor copy — that is, a free copy of a publication, be it physical or digital, in which a contributor’s work appears — is the industry standard for presses that offer nothing more than exposure in exchange for an author’s composition. Can you guess which side most writers are on? Well, most figure exposure is cool and all but, hey, crafting a good story is hard work and takes time, both of which should be rewarded with a check (or, more recently, a PayPal transfer).
Unfortunately, a lot of small, independent presses can’t afford to pay a standard rate (or even a token flat-rate) and, thus, are exposure-only markets. Again, most authors, at least those who are just starting to build their platforms, are okay with this because they are just beginning their careers in the business. Some would call these newcomers naive and desperate but I feel judgment should be reserved because, after all, not everyone’s goals are lofty and we all started somewhere, right? Some just want to see their name in print.
Before the advent of the Internet and widespread dissemination of digital formats such as .pdf files and e-books, providing a contributor copy of a printed work cost presses real money. Despite the costs, most markets were still willing to provide them as compensation for the use of an author’s story. That way, the writer was at least getting something tangible for their work besides that vague notion of exposure. Now that presses have the capabilities to quickly create digital media, contributor copies are even easier to provide to contributing authors… and for free.
Thus the industry standard seems to have become providing an author a contributor copy (usually digital, but not always) for accepting his work on an exposure-only basis. This has become sort of an unspoken understanding between an editor and contributing authors. This has become so commonplace that when a press refuses to provide such a copy, one takes pause. Such is the case in the following example, which happened to me recently when I was offered a contract to be a part of a for-charity horror anthology. In an act of professionalism, I’ve chosen to remove the name of the press and the publication.
A month or so ago, I sent a standard query to a small press that’d put out a call for short horror stories for a themed anthology, the proceeds of which would be going to a certain charity. I was fine with the submission guidelines, even the part that said authors would be given a special rate of 40% off the retail price for each purchase because, hey, proceeds were going to charity anyway. So, I sent away and went back to whatever I do when I chuck one of my stories into the void and hope it sticks.
A week or two later, I received the following e-mail from the press:
Thank you for sharing your work with us; we enjoyed ’Two Shades of White’ very much and, pending edits, would like to include it in our upcoming anthology, entitled [ANTHOLOGY TITLE]. Attached you will find the proposed contract, and upon signing and promptly returning it, we will forward the document to our publisher so your name and story title can be added to [NAME OF PRESS]’s early acceptance list.
We look forward to working with you; please feel free to contact us with any questions at [E-MAIL ADDRESS].
Congratulations on being a part of this exciting anthology!
Hey, an acceptance! Nice. Pretty standard stuff there… until I checked out the attached contract. It was a pretty standard legal contract outlining rights being transferred and applicable parties and such. But I starting getting a weird feeling as I read through it. First, neither charitable intent of proceeds nor the charity itself were ever named. Second, there was a clause which read that any edits to my story could be made without my consent. Third, it said I would not be receiving a contributor copy, electronic or otherwise.
The first issue irked me because the press would not be legally bound to give the proceeds of the anthology to charity. I hoped the money would be going to the right place, but how would I know? The second issue seemed suspect because every editor I’ve ever worked with has been open and honest about the editing process, always giving me a final draft to go over before publication. And, in light of the other two issues, I began to rethink my stance on the third issue despite being fine with the reduced price I’d have to pay to see my own story in print when I thought my money was going to charity.
After such reasoning and a number of conversations with a few professional friends, I sent the following e-mail to indicate I was withdrawing my story:
After careful consideration, I’ve chosen to withdraw my submission of “Two Shades of White” from [ANTHOLOGY NAME]. Thanks again for your time and consideration and I wish you the best in your endeavors.
As always, I hope this finds you well,
A few hours later, I received a reply:
So sorry to hear. It was a wonderful story. If there are any questions or concerns that were a deciding factor, we would be glad to help in any way.
Well, that was an interesting reply. I was appreciative that the press was willing to answer any questions or concerns I had and so I let my curiosity spill out of me in the following response:
I am choosing to withdraw my story, “Two Shades of White,” for numerous reasons, the principle among them being that the contract you sent me makes no mention of proceeds going to any charity whatsoever, the declaration of which was clearly stated in your submission guidelines. Also stated in your guidelines was mention that absolutely no author would be privy to acceptance before the submission deadline. Of course, I would love to believe that “Two Shades of White” moved you so intensely that you were forced to forego such a declaration, but it still seems a tad unprofessional to me.
Another issue I had with the contract is the clause which states that edits could be done to my work without my final approval. Believe me, I understand time constraints and that most errors are small, but the multitude of other editors I’ve worked with over the years have always offered me such approval.
Finally, the issue of withholding a contributor copy also seems dubious to me as a professional writer, if but an electronic version. I didn’t mind having to pay 60% for a physical copy when I thought the proceeds were going to [CHARITY NAME], but as I’ve stated above, the contract you presented contains no information regarding charity, despite what was stated in your submission guidelines. Finding this last issue odd, I did some research and found that [NAME OF PRESS] had been getting a lot of negative attention lately for the issue of withholding contributor copies. I’m not going to pretend to know the whole story, but the issue still gives me pause.
With all of this in mind and with regard to the advice of several dear friends and writers, I am forced to withdraw “Two Shades of White.” This is not to say that I’m upset with the experience, but it does feel like one I would have to worry about and I just don’t have time to do so when there’s already so much on my plate. Still, I wish you luck in your endeavors.
F. Charles Murdock
I didn’t come off like a penis, did I? I honestly wasn’t trying to make digs at the press, even with my “unprofessional” comments. I wanted to give them honesty because that’s what this business is about: honesty and professionalism. Either way, here’s the response I got:
Without wanting to waste your valuable time, you brought up some good points that we would appreciate the opportunity to address.
Firstly, regarding your main issue: The contract used for [NAME OF PRESS] is mostly standardized for an array of open calls. The proceeds are going to be forwarded through PayPal to [NAME OF CHARITY], so while it is not in the paper contract, there is a verbal agreement between [NAME OF PRESS] & [NAME OF CHARITY]. Even though you’ve chosen to withdraw your story, the contact information is [E-MAIL ADDRESS OF CHARITY], allowing you to verify the agreement, if you wish to. They operate in both the USA&UK.
Next, regarding contributor copies, [NAME OF PRESS] does not provide contributor copies for any of their anthologies for a number of reasons, the main one being that as of now, it’s a small [CITY] based press, and the expense for shipping alone overseas is quite high. In royalty paying anthologies, [NAME OF PRESS] prefers to have a lower threshold for royalties, thus allowing the authors to decide how to spend the money. As for electronic copies, the reason [NAME OF PRESS] doesn’t provide them is because they can be easily passed around, infringing upon other authors’ rights. There are debates about this issue. [NAME OF PRESS] has already paid out royalties for a number of authors, including [CERTAIN AUTHOR’S NAME].
As editors for [NAME OF PRESS] we personally requested a charity anthology to benefit [CHARITY], because two close family members [ARE AFFECTED BY THE DISEASE THE CHARITY WAS SET UP FOR]; it’s very personal for us. The call on the website has been altered, as that certainly was an issue that needed addressed. Thank you.
Regarding the editing portion of the contract, as a courtesy to the authors we work with, we always provide the author with the edited version of their story before publication, and will gladly discuss anything the author is uncomfortable with.
The 1st anthology we edited, [NAME OF ANTHOLOGY], won 2nd place in [NAME OF POLL], right behind another [NAME OF PRESS] publication that took 1st, despite negative attacks.
As for ‘Two Shades of White’— we felt it was an excellent story and wish you the best wherever it finds a home.
I’m going to be honest, I found myself wondering how snide that “valuable time” line was before giving the editor the benefit of the doubt — after all, true intent is hard to discern over e-mail. Also, this e-mail did little to belay the doubt I felt after reading the proposed contract. I was left wondering why I would have to verify a deal between a press and a charity. Shouldn’t it have been in the contract? That would have been easier for all parties concerned.
The part about contributor copies, though, is what really rubbed me the wrong way. I truly understand that providing printed copies of a book costs serious dough (my wife used to work at a printing company and had firsthand experience regarding costs), but a digital copy? And they won’t provide a digital copy because it might get passed around?
First, that flies in the face of what the market has shown regarding peer-to-peer sharing and pay-what-you-want options: if people are truly intrigued by your product, they will pay for it and usually more than you’d think. Also, this is a for-exposure agreement they’re wanting me to sign... the more people see it, the better. This isn’t to say that I would’ve sent free copies to everyone ever, but it seems incongruent with what’s going on. We want your work to receive exposure, but we don’t want your work to be exposed. Obviously not wanting to lose proceeds plays into this declaration, but still, it doesn’t make much sense to me.
Then they state that I would be provided with a final draft to approve before publication, which wasn’t mentioned in the original contract. Given this, the incongruity between their contract and their commentary, and the weird vibe I was getting, I sent them one last e-mail over a week later in an attempt to understand their reasoning:
Again, thank you for the prompt and polite response. I realize that this reply is ten days due and I apologize if it’s unwelcome, but I’ve had both personal and professional matters that have come up in the last week.
My concern for the literary contract as submitted by [NAME OF PRESS] to me, the author of the work, was not that it was a stock legal document, which was quite apparent and an industry standard for independent presses. Rather, said contract did not seem to reflect the anthology (nor the charity) for which it was drawn up, which is to say that I would expect a contract for a project of this magnitude to have customized content beyond a legal template that expresses to whom the proceeds are going. I don’t doubt that you have an agreement with [NAME OF CHARITY], but I don’t understand why the contract couldn’t be drawn up to reflect such contribution. This is to say that, although I’m not accusing you of such, you could legally keep the money gained by this anthology because the charity is not expressly stated within the contract. This fact gave a few of my professional friends pause (along with the “editing” clause, which also seems inconsistent with the comments you’ve given me). Again, no accusations are being made here.
Your comments on a contributor’s copy, though, has me more perplexed than the contractual inconsistencies. On some levels, I can understand how printing a physical copy for each contributing author would be expensive. But on the other hand and to be blunt, I don’t understand why a press that offers contributing authors “exposure” is worried about getting just that if a digital copy of the work were to be passed around the Internet. This isn’t to say that such dissemination would even take place: from my experience in the literary business, most writers just want a copy of their publication to look at and be proud of. This has become an industry standard. I understand that you might feel this would take away from proceeds, but recent research in crowd-funding and name-your-price options has shown that products that are well-received and well-intentioned garner more support, especially through word-of-mouth. I can’t fathom how an author would be upset with a story he’d given to a press for free getting exposure if that the form of “payment” that’s being offered. I’m not trying to change your dynamic by any means, but am only seeking to understand the reasoning behind it.
Again, thank you for your responses and for your comments on my story. I sincerely hope I’m not intruding with my own continued comments.
I hope this finds you well,
I didn’t receive a reply.
I’ve been thinking about this exchange for a few weeks now, wondering if I’d been unreasonable in some of my conclusions. I hope that their commitment to the charity is real because it’s a great idea, but one I just didn’t feel right supporting with so many inconsistencies on their part. And still, there’s that biting question of a contributor’s copy and what it means for an author selling his work for exposure.
So, is a contributor’s copy an industry standard? Should it be? Whether or not, we need to evaluate what a story is worth in a world where entire volumes can be digitized and stored on devices that can hold thousands of books. The industry has changed… is still changing… and we need to reflect such changes to meet the goals of writers, editors, and readers alike.