by Christopher Bowen
Many authors see publishing contracts as a given, or a dream come true. When one is offered to you, you take it.
When I ran a chapbook press, it was expected that all the authors sign individual contracts. Some of the stipulations included a percentage of each print run returned to the author, as well as reduced lifetime cover costs for those authors. There was some give and take in them, such as design, public appearances and, of course, review copies, with all of it based on time-lines.
I wanted my authors to challenge themselves as much as their work challenged me. I got the first draft of the Burning River agreement skeleton from a Toledo attorney. He had been listed years ago on the VLANY website (Volunteer Lawyers For The Arts) and after a phone conversation mentioned he was now a criminal defender. Though he had worked mostly for visual artists and galleries.
For a two hour road trip and two hundred bucks, he drafted what would become a two page agreement between myself and other authors. It was worth just the security of its intent, protecting myself and the authors from third parties who could misuse copyright or their or my own work in the projects.
But what comes to mind for first-time signing authors? It can obviously be a really intimidating experience.
I asked Tyler Crumrine of Plays Inverse Press a simple, small set of questions on what or how his small press sees signing authors.
Christopher Bowen: What do you see as the most overlooked yet challenging part of an author’s understanding of their commitments to a small press?
Tyler Crumrine: As publishing becomes more and more remote online, communication between press and author is key. One of my authors, for example, lives and does a lot of readings in Chicago. I, on the other hand, live in Pittsburgh, and because this is a SMALL press, I’m also its marketing/PR/social media department. It’s super important in small press publishing in general to let people know when/where they can find your book, but because I’m not a part of my author’s local scene, unless he gives me a heads up on a reading that I haven’t organized or I happen to catch an announcement over social media or via Google Alerts, there’s no way for me to know about it. Same thing with publications in journals, etc. Even though you’ve signed a contract with someone, continued promotion of a book, as well as an author, is always a collaborative effort, and the more you keep your publisher in the know, the more they’re going to be able to promote you, your work, and by extension, their press. And that means letting them know as early and promptly as possible so they can help spread the word in a timely manner.
CB: How do you see interaction and commitment between small presses and small press authors evolving?
TC: I’m a sucker for audio & visual art, and I always love seeing multimedia collaboration between presses and their authors. Book trailers are really coming into their own, especially within small press circles, and I’m starting to see more small presses putting out audiobooks too (frequently read by the author). Sometime these “extra” things are author driven (if the author has the time/connections to put something extra out, awesome!) but I wouldn’t be surprised if more presses start to make a multimedia component standard for their releases. Maybe it’ll be a podcast series interviewing each of their authors, maybe it’ll be videos of strangers reading from an upcoming work, who knows, but as it gets cheaper and easier to put cool things online, I’d love to see more cool things online, whether that push is author or publisher motivated.
I’d also love to see more collaboration between other small/indie/DIY scenes and small presses. Recently Tyrant Books and Holler Presents teamed up with Fat Possum Records to help distribute the Hill William audiobook (as well as a 7″ from Scott’s band). How many other small labels would be jazzed to add new and unique audiobooks/spoken word to their catalog… especially if they had a publisher to help select pieces, advertise, and divvy up the work? Or small performance companies to help produce readings? Those are some of the things I get most excited about, and hopefully more folks will start teaming up with authors and their presses in the future.
CB: Have you ever had to overlook an author or their work because of their inability or want to commit to a contract?
TC: Kind of. As a small press publisher of drama, some of the playwrights we’d like to work with already have agents and relationships with big script publishing houses. While our focus is on creating high-quality, reader-focused books, there’s more money in cranking out acting editions as quickly as possible so you can collect royalties on performances. The trick is finding authors who have just as much love for the page as the stage and would be interested in the kind of literary/artifact editions we offer, despite smaller runs and distribution. Sometimes it just doesn’t make as much sense career-wise, which while I hate reading acting editions, I totally understand. That’s part of why we love working with cross-genre writers who are starting to toy with drama though, to serve as a kind of mid-way point between the small press and play publishing worlds, maintaining book-quality printing standards while also introducing them to things like performance rights, etc., on a smaller scale. Ideally as we expand, however, our size will be less of a limiting factor in regards to contracts and representation.
With this in mind, I also gratefully turned to Jeffrey Lependorf, Executive Director of CLMP, the Council for Literary Magazines and Presses based out of New York. Taken from one of their monograph series on contest code of ethics:
CLMP’s community of independent literary publishers believe that ethical contests serve our shared goal: to connect writers and readers by publishing exceptional writing. We believe that intent to act ethically, clarity of guidelines, and transparency of process form the foundation of an ethical contest. To that end, we agree to 1) conduct our contests as ethically as possible and to address any unethical behavior on the part of our readers, judges, or editors; 2) to provide clear and specific contest guidelines — defining conflict of interest for all parties involved; and 3) to make the mechanics of our selection process available to the public. This Code recognizes that different contest models produce different results, but that each model can be run ethically. We have adopted this Code to reinforce our integrity and dedication as a publishing community and to ensure that our contests contribute to a vibrant literary heritage.
Christopher Bowen: There’s a code of ethics that CLMP has developed over time for literary contests that has been repeated throughout the small presses. While this code may be implemented by a small press, what do you believe fundamentally does this mean for a small press author?
Jeffrey Lependorf: We developed the CLMP Contest Code of Ethics in response to what had been not only a major issue, but also one developed in response to multiple problems. For one, there were (and sadly still are) a number of contests out there by unscrupulous publishers that existed for only one purpose: to make money from writers. Some of these, with names like “United States Library of Poetry,” awarded anyone sending in anything with the dubious honor of paying various amounts for different levels of deluxe editions that contained all of the winning poems. Contests like this euphemistically call what is vanity publishing a contest. The “winners” essentially pay to be published. Legitimate publishers do not charge their authors for the privilege of being published. These volumes of prizewinning poems would never be found in bookstores or ever receive a review. At the same time, and more importantly for our purposes, some well-meaning contests by legitimate publishers (those actually mission-driven to make the work of authors known to a reading public) had genuine breaches of ethics by judges, plus sometimes real or simply perceived or implied breaches of ethics due to contests not being run in the best possible way, even if the intentions may have been good.
The CLMP Contest Code of Ethics goes along with a set of guidelines for publishers for various models of ethical contests. The primary takeaway for us was that there are multiple ways to ethically run contests, any one of which can be of value to certain writers—ethics has to do primarily with intent, transparency and clarity. Whether a contest, for example, is judged by a single well-known writer, or by an editorial staff, or whether the judge or judges sees all entries or only reads finalists, what the prize may be, or any number of other factors, have little to do with ethics. The important thing is for the exact process and intent to be made known, and then of course that that process to then be followed ethically as defined in the guidelines. It’s up to a writer to determine the real value of a contest to her and if, for that particular contest, an entry fee or judging process is appropriate. What makes a contest ethical or not then is not implicit in any mechanism of the contest, or what it might cost to enter, but in whether or not that contest follows through as promised. In the case of my example of an unethical contest above, something presented as a contest was actually a marketing scheme. The breach of ethics there is clear. In the case of a judge in a contest from a legitimate publisher, for example, choosing a current student as the winner, if the publisher holding the contest presents along with guidelines how they define a conflict of interest (and this is an obvious one; harder when it’s something like a student who attended a school where one teaches but never took a class with the judge, for example), then this is a breach of ethics.
What the code of ethics does for writers at the very least is let them make an informed decision about the value of a contest to them. If a publisher follows the code of ethics (which is not a law, it’s a guideline for ethical behavior), and a writer doesn’t like the process, she can simply not enter that contest. At the same time, it serves as a guide for publishers about how to go about doing the right thing, which comes from making their judging process clear, defining conflicts of interest, and specifying exactly what one actually gets for winning, being it a cash prize, publication, etc. My advice to authors looking at contests, before they even try to determine if the publishers follows the Code or not, is to first ask themselves if this is a publisher they would want to be published by. She should look over the list of previous winners and judges. It’s generally self-evident even just from this if a contest is legitimate. If the publisher is a CLMP member and states the code, in all likelihood the contest is being run with the best intentions. Lapses of ethics can of course always happen (i.e. a judge picking a former student even though a conflict of interest policy may clearly state not to), and in that case one should look at how any former breach of ethics was handled. The community we are a part of (independent literary publishers) share information; a bad-acting judge will generally not be asked to judge again. Ultimately, the real question for the author is “do I really want to win this contest?” This may seem obvious, but most of the contests that have clear breaches of ethics are being run by publishers that any writer having done just a little due diligence (i.e. perused the catalog of the press) should never have wanted to have as a publisher. The most important things to know is that legitimate publishers, such as those in the CLMP community, really do want to help writers’ work get out there, and that most of them are writers themselves. The overwhelming majority of small presses holding contests also function as nonprofit, mission-driven organizations whose primary shared goal is discovering new literary voices and connecting them to readers. It’s also true that many hold contests to provide essential earned income streams. It’s up to a writer to determine if a contest charges too much given its possible reward, and if so, not to take part. If a contest really does seem to have acted unethically in terms of not doing what it claimed it would, they should begin by letting the press know and seeing how it’s handled. Again, in terms of contests, ethical behavior has to do with intent, clarity and transparency; many excellent models of ethical contests exist, but not all contests suit all authors.
CB: In your opinion, is there an author’s code of ethics out there somewhere?
JL: I’m unaware of one, but there certainly could be one. Ethics should be a two-way street. As much as authors should expect ethical behavior from a publisher, they should act in kind. Ethics are what someone should do, not what one legally has to do. For authors to work well with legitimate publishers—who really are on their side—I think it’s generally less a matter so much of acting ethically and more a matter of acting kindly toward folks who are doing their very best for you. For example, if a writer has a work accepted for book publication through a contest or by a literary magazine, where what a publisher gains from this exchange is “first publication,” and it’s then accepted for publication elsewhere or wins an award somewhere else, the author should ethically decline that second award or publication, or at least be in immediate communication with the publisher who first contacted them to discuss what to do. Publishers and editors think of themselves as partners, not gatekeepers, and certainly not as “the enemy.” If an author feels that she isn’t being treated right by a publisher, she should first simply talk to the publisher about her issue before jumping to seek legal counsel. In terms of the legal, if an author’s going to have a book published, she should make sure that any concerns are addressed in her contract to avoid any possible issues later. I think that ethics and legalities are frequently confused.
CB: Taking this all into consideration, what do you personally believe are an author’s rights? Not necessarily in legal terms, but in being people and when presented for the first time with a small press contract?
JL: I think the only real rights are legal ones, but it might be helpful for authors to remember that (until they are signed) “all contracts are negotiable.” Every author should feel she can question anything in a contract that she doesn’t understand. She should know that if a particular specified right (i.e. anthology rights, digital rights, etc.) is not explicitly given to a publisher in a contract that the publisher does not automatically have that right (and vice-versa). Writers should probably make sure that there is a provision for how the rights of a book might revert to them (i.e. if a title “goes out of print” for some period), and how they might purchase discounted copies of the book (or receive some number of books without cost as part of the deal). They should know that they can choose to retain certain rights even though their publisher may be publishing their book. Finally, they have the right to decline a contract if they don’t feel it’s fair. When we’re talking about rights, though, we’re really ultimately talking about legal rights. Simply put, if a right is not in your contract, you don’t have it (this goes for the author and the publisher). Making sure a contract is not only fair, but that it addresses all of the things it should, is a primary function of literary agents. Some kinds of books, such as poetry books, generally do not have complicated contracts or address certain kinds of rights (i.e. film rights), and even royalties may be a non-issue in the case of poetry books where the authors frequently simply receive a fee. In all likelihood, if it’s a legitimate publisher, it will be a fair contract, which is not to say that various issues may still be negotiated. One should of course have a contract before a book is published. A contract is common sense. If things do go sour, nothing really matters except what is in writing. I would say that it’s an author’s right to request a contract. Most importantly, though, being published should be thought of as a partnership. You should want to be published by the press offering you a contract. If it doesn’t feel like a good match, chances are it isn’t.
So, after all this thought and information, what do you believe a writer should do when approached with a publishing contract? And I think that’s what really matters. What “you” as an author feel is right and what has been alluded to above, that sometimes you just have to go with your gut. And if that isn’t working, much less in the end will for the book itself.
Christopher Bowen is an Ohio author and culinary chef. His recently released personal fiction chapbook, We Were Giants, is available from the publisher, Sunnyoutside Press. He blogs at burningriver.info.