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.