By Dennis Doty
As usual this week’s blog is about something that crossed my desk, er, computer screen this week. I’m going to talk about predatory contracts, what they are and how to recognize them.
A predatory contract is one which attempts to take advantage of the author through various means. These means can include deception, unreasonable demands, or fees.
Let’s examine fees first because it is relatively simple and straight forward. Writers DO NOT PAY to be published. The publisher should pay for editing, formatting or typesetting, proofreading, printing, distribution, marketing and promotion. This doesn’t mean that they won’t expect you to promote your own book through your website, blog and author page. They will and should. You should be willing to write about it, talk about it, do interviews about it and attend book signings or other promotional events at least in your area. But, you should not have to pay for these services.
Deceptive practices can take many forms, but some of the most common are advertisements and offers of FREE publication. Legitimate publishers don’t tell you it’s free because they know you shouldn’t be expected to pay. Free publication is invariably a come-on to get you interested and excited about seeing your book in print. Then they hit you with all the extras, kind of like asking if you want meat and condiments on that burger you ordered. Your book needs to be edited for a small one-time fee of only WAY MORE than the going rate. You’re going to need a good cover for your book and we have just the artist who can provide it for WAY MORE than the going rate. If you sign up for our super deluxe package we will distribute your book to reviewers and bloggers to get your name out there. A legitimate publisher will do this anyway for free because it’s good business, and they will have far better contacts to send it to.
Finally, let’s consider unreasonable demands. Again, these can take many forms, but let me use some examples from the contract I was offered this week.
“The Author grants to the Publisher the non-exclusive right to publish, reproduce and distribute the Work in all formats in English throughout the world (‘the Territory”) for the full term of the copyright…”
There are a couple of things wrong with this clause. First is the “all formats”. The publisher is offering to put my story in an anthology, yet they want print, electronic, audio and motion picture rights as well. Why? So that they can either use or sell them now or in the future. The second thing wrong here is world-wide rights. Are they marketing in Australia, New Zealand, England, South Africa, Rhodesia, and all other countries where English is the primary language, or only in the U.S. and Canada? The final and worst thing wrong here is “for the full term of the copyright”. That means, for the natural life of the author plus 70 years. Do they really think that their anthology is going to join the ranks of the immortals? A standard anthology contract will ask for first English-language print rights for a short period of time. This is usually no more than three months from publication or six months from acceptance and never more than twelve months. If they publish their anthologies in e-book form as well, they will ask for short-term exclusive electronic rights and the non-exclusive right to continue to maintain that platform for a longer period of time because, once something is released electronically, it is always out there.
“The Publisher shall publish edition(s) of the Work in such format, style, and manner as the Publisher deems appropriate within one year from the date of the Publisher’s acceptance of the manuscript.”
This seemingly innocuous passage allows the publisher to not only publish my story in the anthology, but to publish it separately or in a separate anthology if they so desire. My concern is with them publishing it separately because of the payment structure discussed elsewhere. I’m not too worried about a separate anthology because that would be competing with themselves and unlikely.
15% of the list price of each copy of the anthology that is sold direct to consumer with the author’s discount code being used.
For all sales not sold with a coupon code (retail outlets, direct to consumer and the like) 10% of the list price (if sold from our website) or wholesale price (if sold to or through a retail outlet), will go into a collective account and distributed evenly amongst all authors in that given anthology. (ie. If the account equals $100.00 and there are 100 authors, each author will be paid a $1.00 royalty from that account)
If an ebook is eventually released, the royalty will be paid in accordance with sales made without a coupon code and funds will be added to the collective account.
Several problems here, as well. First off, the use of the discount code forces all sales to go through the publisher so I can’t sell autographed copies to my friends, family and fans directly. Nor can I very well do book signings or other author events. The second problem is that they will, no doubt, ask $4.95 or more for the ebook which puts them in the range to collect 60% royalties or $2.97 per copy. Less than 30 cents of that will be paid out to the authors to divide equally, presumably around one cent each. Worse, this is how I would be paid if they choose to put my story out as an individual short story. The publisher will collect 60% and I would be paid a penny or so per copy as would dozens of authors who had nothing to do with my story if the publisher was honest enough to actually divide the 10%, but more likely, based on this contract he would simply pocket that 29 cents as well and correctly assume that they would never think to see if someone else’s story had earned them anything.
The Author agrees to cooperate, and to be available, in connection with the Publisher’s requirements regarding the promotion, publicly, and advertising of the Work.
This clause seems reasonable on the surface but is too vague. It could be remedied by inserting the word “reasonably” before available, but that word isn’t there. This means that the publisher could call me and say, “You have to be in London tomorrow for a promotional event, and I am obligated to jump on an airplane and be there with no compensation or even reasonable travel expenses.”
Obviously, I did not sign and return this contract. I did, email them promptly withdrawing my story from consideration for their anthology and enumerating the multiple reasons why in the unlikely event that they wished to make corrections to their contract. I don’t expect to hear from them again.
There are all kinds of ways for unethical and predatory individuals and companies to take advantage of the unwary writer. I hope that this blog will help you avoid some of them.