Whose story is it anyway?

Last weekend, I hosted the weekly Circlet Press Author Chat on LiveJournal (and sponsored a poetry contest). I shared some thoughts about changes in the publishing industry, rights issues, platform, author compensation, etc.

Below is a copy of my second (of three) posts. You can read comments on it there.

In the past three years, I’ve turned down several opportunities to sell short stories for rates ranging from acceptable to best ever. In all cases, I rejected the acceptance because the contracts required that I give up all future rights to my own work.

I’ve sold stories before to publishers who sent out such contracts. But they were willing to negotiate for more reasonable terms. Two of the contracts I sent back took possession of all rights in perpetuity including any and all derivative works published or distributed throughout the world in any and all languages, formats and media, available now and in the future. They could have made a blockbuster movie out of my story and I would have been stuck with my $400 payment.

Now, I’m not so egotistical as to think that I’ve written an erotic short story that’s destined to fill movie theaters. But the way the contracts were worded, they even would have prohibited me, for example, from including my own short story in a collection of my own work. The publisher could have sold e-book rights, audio rights, YouTube rights, and rights I haven’t heard of yet without giving me any additional compensation.

It’s discouraging enough that well-known, respected authors accept as little as $25 for a 3,000- to 5,000-word story (less than one cent a word). In some genres, three cents a word is considered professional rates. But SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) raised that bar to five cents in 2004. Still compared to rates paid for non-fiction or business writing, even professional rates for fiction are embarrassing.

By accepting less than a third of that, authors do all writers a disservice — devaluing their work. To give away all the rights to your work for a few hundred dollars is, in my opinion, a travesty. Unfortunately, these types of contracts seem to have become more prevalent. And authors, desperate for the prestige that allegedly accompanies placement in certain periodicals and anthologies, sign them.

I recognize that some people just write for the pleasure of telling stories and seek publication to share those stories with the world. They have day jobs.

One of the consequences of the quantity of material available for free on the Internet is that readers have become less willing to pay for content. But free doesn’t always represent the best deal. I’ve read many erotic stories, available free on the Web, that are pure dreck. They are case studies in poor grammar, misspelled words, and lack of character development, conflict, story architecture etc. Many are just badly written sex scenes, nothing more.

I have traded words for cash for more years than I care to admit, first as a newspaper reporter, then as a marketing communication professional. Perhaps my many years in the business world color my refusal to give away rights to my work. But, every time authors sign away rights to their work for little or no compensation, or allow publishers to walk away with ownership of what they’ve written, they devalue the work of every other professional writer struggling to make ends meet.

I recognize it’s sometimes hard to turn down $50 or $500 even for a bad contract. And ultimately, we each work for ourselves, so we have to evaluate every offer on its individual merits relative to our individual needs. But if fewer authors signed away all rights in contracts, publishers might stop insisting on stealing our work.

What are your thoughts? Have you sold a story for less than you thought it was worth? Have you turned down a contract that required you to give up too many rights? Have you signed such a contract and later regretted it?

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