Et Dona Ferentes
I hope that most of you will have by now heard about James Frey’s Full Fathom Five. For those who haven’t, the full New York magazine article can be read here, and John Scalzi’s article here is an excellent summary.
Anyone who has read these, especially if an established author or publisher, should be horrified. I don’t propose to go into great detail about why you should avoid Full Fathom Five, but I can see how it works. Someone brand new to writing, being offered a contract, by best-selling author like Frey, could very well be dazzled by the seeming fruition of their dreams, and I can well understand why they would sign.
Just like vanity publishing, it flatters to deceive, working on ego, ambition, hopes, dreams and innate human nature, the inherent trust we have that good things do happen, to effectively pull a fast one.
So please, read contracts carefully before you sign them, because “oh I didn’t understand/read that” isn’t a defence, and you will be bound by it. This is the second time in as many months I’ve seen a contract that expects the author to be liable for all legal action taken against the story, yet simultaneously stripping the author of any ownership rights for said story.
I’m not a big name author. And as much as I’m a publisher, I’m very small press. Insignificant press really. But take my advice. If a contract says the publisher can take your story, use it any way they like without even crediting that it was your work, that the publisher owns all the copyright, that you don’t get the option of regaining the copyright after a set period of time, that the publisher doesn’t even need to use the story yet can still own it, then do not sign that contract.
The Full Fathom Five contract not only strips the author of copyright (in and of itself not unusual, copyright usually passes to a publisher, but the author gets it back eventually), but appears to strip the author of the moral right to be identified as the author. FFF can use the story, with someone else’s name on it, and you are contractually prohibited from identifying yourself. That’s plain wrong.
My company, eMergent Publishing, is in the process of getting our latest anthologies distributed via the Smashwords Premium Catalogue. The Premium Catalogue only allows for a single author. I created a “ghost author” that represented everyone involved in the book. I’ve been told to revert authorship to my own name, or the book cannot go into the Premium Catalogue. That offends me as a writer and publisher. I did not write these books. Why should my name be attached, in preference to any of the writers involved? There’s a principle at stake here, the moral rights of artists, something enshrined in international conventions like the Berne Convention, and national laws.
A publishing contract may seem the goal, it may seem exciting. But do consider carefully what is being asked of you when you sign.
What Frey is asking of authors is simply wrong. I can’t say how it “ought” to be done. That’s for each publishing house to decide. At eMergent we license the use of stories, so copyright always remains with the author. We have time-limited exclusive licences, so that if we don’t use a right, it very quickly goes back to the author. And rather than viewing revenue as ours, of which 10% should go to the author, we view the revenue as being the authors, of which 20% goes to us for our services. And we have to damn well justify taking money off of any author.
That’s what we do. It’s different. It’s no more “right” than the practices at Random House, Penguin, etc. But what Frey is doing with Full Fathom Five? That’s just wrong.
So don’t be dazzled by a publishing contract. Read, and think. Get the advice of friends, better yet a lawyer. In the UK, everyone with an offer of a publishing contract is allowed to call The Society of Authors and have them review it to see if it is fair.
And honestly, most publishing contracts are fair.
But not all, and not always. So beware of publishers bearing gifts. Or that bestseller that you wrote? Might be on the shelves under someone else’s name, and nobody would know.