Royalty-only anthologies and writer exploitation

I made a comment on Twitter that caused a flurry of reaction. I won’t call it a storm, I’m not Stephen Fry or Neil Gaiman, who can break a website with a single tweet, but the response to my comment was interesting nonetheless. I was basically lamenting the continued rise of anthology submission calls that are “paying” writers with royalties only. I have a problem with this, and I’ll explain why.

It’s well known that most of us don’t get paid anything like what we’re really worth as writers. Yet those of us who persevere should see a slow increase in how much we can make for our writing, as our skills improve and our reputation becomes estbalished. A lot of writers get their first publication credits in FTL publications. (That’s For The Love, not Faster Than Light. Althought Faster Than Light Publications is not bad name for an SF press, but I digress.) I got my own early publications in places that paid nothing but exposure. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Most of those places will say something like, “We’d love to pay our authors but we can’t afford to offer anything but exposure at this stage.” They’re honest and there is a place for that, especially with online zines. And authors know exactly what they’re getting.

Some writers are happy to put stuff out through those venues indefinitely, but the majority of people will slowly graduate to better, paid gigs. For this reason, those FTL markets almost always comprise up and coming writers and no recognised names, but that’s kinda their purpose.

The next level up from writing for nothing but “exposure” (and I use quotes, because, let’s be honest, not many people read those places) is getting paid a flat rate and/or contributor copies. Often a market, expecially online fiction markets, will pay a token rate. Even $3 or something like that through PayPal. It’s next to nothing, but it’s something and it’s honest. The author knows what they’re getting.

Along with, or instead of, a token amount is a contributor copy payment. Let’s assume the market is paying nothing but contrib copies. That’s fair enough if they’re clear about that. Something like, “We can’t afford to pay writers for their stories, but each contributor will receive a copy of the issue(or book) their story appears in.” The reason this is important, and it really is important, is because they know authors want copies of anything their work appears in. It’s understandable – when a writer gets published, they want to show off their success. They want hard evidence of their hard work.

Personally, I think all print markets should, at the very least, send a contributor copy to all the authors, even if they don’t pay anything. Far better than paying a token amount and not sending copies, as the author will probably end up down on the deal as they buy their own copy of the book or magazine, which likely costs more than any token payment.

Now the ideal situation is to be paid and get a contributor’s copy. Even if the payment is as low as just a few dollars, plus a contrib copy, the author is getting something for their hard work. Well below anything like a viable wage, but something. The best of all worlds is to be paid well and get at least one contributor copy.

Paid well means by the word. Even 1 cent/word is usually better than a flat rate and once you hit the heady heights [/sarcasm] of 5 cents/word and above, you’re doing damn well by today’s fiction standards (oh, how I dream of 5c/word!) I have a personal policy that my work is worth a certain amount. I won’t submit anywhere that doesn’t pay my base requirement. Of course, that’s my decision based on my experience, my previous publication history and what I think my work is worth. I expect to regularly revise that policy and I hope to always revise it upwards! But, as I said, I got my start in FTL markets like so many others and that’s good. And I’ll still contribute to lower paid markets if I like the concept, respect the publisher, get invited, and so on. No rules are hard and fast. But I always know what I’m getting.

So why are royalty-only markets exploiting writers? Because they promise something, but will almost certainly pay nothing. It’s all about respect for a writer. The primary reason for publishers paying royalties only is because it removes the outlay of buying stories up front, yet still reserves the hope of paying the contributors. That’s fundamentally a good idea, but it’s usually a problem – if that publisher has faith in their ability to edit together a good book and sell it, they should be prepared to pay for the work they include. If they can’t afford an outlay and want to pay by royalty, they should at least send out contributor copies. If the book is not very successful and doesn’t sell, at least the writers got a book out of it. But there’s a reason they don’t.

The exploitation of royalty-only is in publishers knowing that writers will want a copy of the book their story appears in. So will their family and friends, probably. So the publisher promises royalties, knowing the authors may never make a cent, but they, the pubisher, will at least make their money back because all the contributors will buy copies for themselves. Let’s look at the numbers.

“Payment” of royalty-only is usually something like 60% for ebook and 20% for print (if I’m generous), shared among contributors. The rest is kept by the publisher. To keep it simple, let’s look at the ebook and say it retails for $5.

For every ebook sold, the publisher gets $2 and the contributors get $3, shared among them.

Let’s say there are twenty stories in the book. That’s $3 shared among 20 people, or 15 cents for each author for each book sold. That’s a best case example, by the way!

If the book sells 100 copies, that’s still a poor payment for a story. If it sells 1,000 copies, it’s starting to get pretty good. But it won’t sell 1,000. No way. If the publisher could sell 1,000 copies of a book, they’d be paying for quality stories, because that’s how you sell a lot of books. See the issue?

It’s the sad truth that the majority of these anthologies – and there are thousands of them – don’t sell at all. After all, there are thousands of them. Not one book beyond the contributors buying their own copies. So the contribs might make enough at 15c a time to cover their outlay for a copy of the print edition, though probably not. Meanwhile, the publisher makes $2 for every book sold. The net result is effectively the writers paying the publisher to have copies of a book featuring their work, that no one else will ever buy or read. Harsh? Maybe, but it’s true.

It’s exploitation because writers are misled into thinking they might score some income. After all, if the book only sells a couple of hundred copies, they’ll at least make something right? Wrong. For one, it almost certainly won’t sell more than a couple of dozen copies and there’s one more part to consider. A lot of these publishers stipulate in the contract that royalties are paid after expenses are recouped. Let’s say they put a production cost as low as $100 on getting the book out there. The chances of making back that $100 are pretty slim. Those publishers will probably pay more like $50 to get the book out there, rack up their $2 every time a contributor buys a copy, and sit back with a small profit of somewhere between nothing and $50.

Why do they do it? Well, I’m sure they’re hoping to land a success and start shifting lots of books. They’ll make a heap of cash and they can pay their authors well-deserved royalties. It’s all very noble. But it’s not going to happen. Still, at least the publisher should break even, right? Or possibly make a few quid without ever having to pay the authors a cent.

Now, a good publisher, who actively promotes their work and pushes their catalogue and sells books and has every intention of making themselves and their authors money might have more success and shift a lot more books. But by a lot we’re talking a couple of hundred. Maybe. The money coming back to the authors is still pocket change. At least if the publisher sent out contributor copies, the authors would have pocket change and a book, but that would be too much expense for the publisher, and destroy their own primary income stream. These are publishers who refuse to carry any risk.

I’ve sold stories where there’s a basic payment of X cents a word, plus a contributor copy, plus royalties after X costs recovered. That means I got paid for my work, I got a book and, if the book is really successful, I make even more. After all, my work is, presumably, one of the reasons it’s doing so well. That’s how a royalty system should work.

I’m sure a lot of these folks using the royalty-only system are full of good intentions. They really want to sell books and pay authors, but they’re not going to take any risk in doing so. It’s almost certainly not going to work and they’re giving new writers a false sense of hope. These publishers should at least have the faith in their own work to pay by contributor copy and royalty, thereby removing the perception that they’re out to make money from the authors they’re publishing. Those same writers could send their work to online FTL markets, after all, where they’ll still get nothing, but might at least get read by someone.

For The Love markets are one thing. Token payment markets are fair enough. Exposure only plus a contributor copy is fair enough. All these things are clear in what they’re offering and the author knows what they’re getting and how they may end up out of pocket if they buy a copy of the book. A lot of these places will offer authors copies of the book at a 40% discount, which is wholesale rather than retail. You’ll find a lot of these royalty-only markets don’t even offer that. Because they want authors to buy copies of the book they made, at full retail, as that’s how the publisher plans to recoup their costs and maybe make some money for themselves. If they can break even from contributors, there’s no incentive to promote the book to recover their costs. They just move on to the next one and the next one, racking up a catalogue of books no one will ever buy except the people who wrote them.

It’s easy to be a publisher these days. It’s great that there are so many small presses cropping up doing all kinds of interesting stuff. It’s trememdous that there are so many opportunites now for writers to get their work out there. But publishers should at the very least be honest about what writers can expect, even if that’s nothing, and not make back their costs back from the writers sweating blood for them.

I know this is a personal bugbear of mine and plenty of writers are happy to give royalty-only markets a stab. I know a lot of publishers genuinely want to succeed. But I think a contributor copy should be the bare minimum of payment for a print market. What about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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27 thoughts on “Royalty-only anthologies and writer exploitation

  1. Agree completely, Alan. I don’t think I can add anything, really. The only worse offender is something I’ve noticed among the FTL anthologies beginning to clog up the webs: no risk to the publisher, all $ to the publisher. Not a fan.

  2. What about ePublication only anthologies? Does there need to be a physical product? If the overheads of a physical book are removed is a royalty-only publication viable?

    Just asking.

    Phill Berrie.

  3. Phillip – I think that’s fair, assuming the publisher makes any e-format freely available to authors. And sends a print copy should the project go to print. E-publishing is certainly facing new challenges.

  4. I couldn’t agree more. I myself have been in a “royalty-only” anthology which has yet to pay out as the publishers didn’t make as much as they thought they would, and the most the writers got was a free electronic copy. It’s funny how you’d never expect many other professions to give away their skills or produce for free, but the moment the product becomes “creative”, you’re expected to do everything for free – and worse, you’re expected to feel grateful about it.

  5. I personally haven’t thought about the royalties issue that much so far, as I’ve only started submitting in earnest fairly recently. I only do FTL when it’s something I want to support like #FridayFlash, a charity, or a specific writing challenge where I’m getting experience (like 52/250). For almost everything else I want to get paid, because I think my work is worth it. If I’m going to give it away, then I might as well post it on my own blog where at least I’ll drive traffic there. I’ve subbed to ezines though and my contributor copy was free access to the zine, which is fine by me. I prefer to read things on my ereader anyway.

  6. We started as royalty only share. Not because we wanted to avoid paying our writers, or because we wanted all the money, but because we wanted to explore a concept, and neither Paul or I were sure the concept would actually pan out in practice. That concept became the Red Book, The Red Book became Chinese Whisperings and Chinese Whisperings lead to the founding of eMergent Publishing. When we set out royalty share it was a 20/80 split with the 80% shared between ten writers the first time and twenty writers the second time. This meant we were working hard to sell books to cover our expenses (which gratefuly with those first two anthologies was just our time!)

    It’s always been our hope that we’ll sell enough copies to double or triple the going rate for each story in the anthology. Naive perhaps!

    The first two CW anthologies have to date only been available as eBooks and the sales have been poor, despite the fact they are both good read, well written and thoroughly edited.

    Eighty Nine (for LMT) is the first ‘commercial anthology’ we’ve produced and has an upfront payment, which is paltry in the big scheme of things, but we want to work with emerging writers, giving them the opportunity to network with other writers and to work one-on-one with an editor. We also offer instead of payment & a copy, copies of the book (at cost price) to the value of the original payment. To date we’ve had many of our writers opt to put their payments back into the running costs of the business to ensure the press keeps running and providing opportunities which our existing authors have already had the privledge of experiencing.

    We’ve always been totally upfront with what we do and how we do it, and our philosophy is the writer always comes first.

    I honestly believe it you’re not offering payment you need to be offering something else, other than just the chance to see your work in print.

    I’ve been watching the rise of FTL of it anths which have a commerical outcome for the publisher and feel sick when I see it – knowing all the time and effort we put into working with and alongside writers. And not offering contributor copies – only a 40% discount on purchase of books.I hate to wish anyone failure, but all the wrong kinds of energy goes into this and they don’t deserve to move books.

    I thought I came here to comment with some kind of clarity and voice… but I think my thoughts are ending up all jumbled.

    To concur – a contributor copy – yes! Payment – yes! Both – double yes! But in all – be upfront, transparent and honest. Back when we floated our first crazy project we told everyone there was a good possiblity it wouldn’t even work. Guess the universe had other plans!

  7. Don’t forget tho, Jodie – unlike the anthos that Alan is taking about, where you compete in slush against other authors for no reward, your model is almost more like a beginning-and-emerging-and-established author anthology co-op workshop. (I’m sure that haphazard description would look awesome in german). The value add provided by a dedicated editing team and the support/assistance of a contributor’s fellow authors is far greater than the $ reward of most anthos (even many that pay well).

  8. Well, there are other ways of getting ‘paid’ if you’re starting out. Like I said earlier, having your work meet someone else’s standards and getting editorial feedback is valuable when you’re learning the craft. It’s not all about money (not that it’s not important). When you start, the experience and feedback are a big help.

  9. I fully agree with your sentiments.

    I’ve often thought that some of these smaller POD anthologies are little more than vanity publishing, as the only people who purchase them are the writers and their families.

    Again, as long as they are upfront, there is nothing wrong with that.

    I believe one of the reasons my published bibliography is so short is because I’ve held out for markets where the publishing credit carries some respect.

    Not that there is anything wrong with FTL or token markets There are a couple I’m thinking of contributing to because they’re doing it properly (in my eyes) and it’s an area or theme I’d love to explore.

  10. Jodi – Your model is very different for several reasons. One, as Tom says, you operate like a co-op and people learn a lot, and they get well edited. They also get free ebooks, and a contributor copy if/when the book goes to print. And you’re very clear on intentions and methodology. You care first and foremost for the writers and that’s apparent.

    Hell, you asked me to blurb Emma Newman’s collection, which I was happy to do, and you sent me a free copy of the book for that effort, and threw in a copy of Nothing But Flowers. Thank you very much! There’s no way anyone could accuse you of exploiting anyone. You’re a great example of how small startup publishers should do it. Thanks for sharing here.

  11. I’m primarily at the FTL stage at the moment, partly for the exposure and partly to see if I can actually get in. I like my stuff (I’d be worried if I didn’t) so it’s sort of a testing ground to see if anyone else in the world likes it too (tests for higher paid publications are so far inconclusive. More tests will follow). I’m under no illusion that I’m doing it for the experience and the warm fuzzies at this point.

    This paying for your own copy and getting royalties thing does put me in mind of the “No win, no charge” law firms who inevitably present you will a bill an order of magnitude above what you actually get paid.

  12. At the moment, I’m contemplating something similar to what Jodi offers her writers. The trouble I’m having is the ongoing accounting nightmares. This alone seems like more trouble than what likely small profits it might generate.

    However, the cross-promotion and goodwill aspects make any such project sound fun. Maybe there’s a place for physical copies at cost, $$ / word, and royalties when a high bar in copies sold is reached, making the accounting worth the trouble?? Ethics of it are easy, but making it all work for the CFO’s team…?

  13. You make an interesting point here, which is very relevant – “ongoing accounting nightmares”.

    A small publisher won’t sell many books, so the small but ongoing royalty thing is a problem. Far better to pay for the stories upfront and not have any further accounting to do. A base payment and contrib copy works in this instance. Then any sales made will initially recover cost and then hopefully make some profit for the publisher. If the publisher is a bit more savvy and involved, they can always offer additional royalty after X amount in sales is reached. Presumably then they’re making the money to justify the work.

    But royalty only anthos are usually not an accounting nightmare because they never make enough money to ever need to pay the authors.

  14. What are some good ‘token’ markets you’d recommend starting writers having a crack at?

  15. Alan, you’re probably right, on the whole, perhaps… I’ve been involved in a number of these anthologies – including a couple with Jodi – and there are lots of reasons why a writer might engage apart from just the money.

    Doing the eMergent anthologies was more like being in a (very good) crit group. I got to meet and work with lots of interesting Aussie writers. I never made a cent but it was well worth it. With other publishers, the experience has been similarly interesting and enlightening, and just the experience of working with different editors can teach you a lot. In a couple of cases, I actually have received royalty cheques (although, I must say, I never expect them) but that’s not the point of doing it.

    The thing about writing short stories, as I see it, is that you’ll never make more than pin money at it, even if you sell to pro markets. So you might as well do it for the fun – and being part of an anthology with an enthusiastic and professional group of fellows is about as much fun as you can get in a public place while sober.

  16. Tim – have a look at the Markets For Writers page via the Links page on my site here.

    Graham – you’re right, there’s definite experience to be gained. I’ve worked with Jodi a lot and now she’s giving token payments and contrib copies as well as being a great crit group. She’s always done something a bit different.

    I disagree about pin money, though. It’s next to impossible to make a living with only short fiction, but I make a decent but of extra cash and I’ve worked up to a place where I feel like I’m getting fairly well compensated for the work I produce. Writing is a significant part of my income and short fiction is a significant part of that. It all depends how seriously you work at it, as with everything in this biz.

  17. I came across an Australian run site (tweeted Alan about it) which takes submissions and puts it on their website, then as soon as the word count hits a certain point the work is collated into a pbook and ebook and sold. No payment to the authors, very sketchy terms and conditions.

  18. Sean – you missed the worst thing about that atrocious fucking scam. They CHARGED people to submit! Crooks!

  19. That’s the erotica anthology that they had on a sister site, I’m referring to the main site which looks to be just farming content with the promise of exposure and then casually taking your work and offering POD every 6-9 months. Which of course you will be because you want to have a book with your writing on the shelf.

    I also didn’t want to sound like I was going on about it.

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