Why Do We Have to Have This Talk?
I love it when we can share anonymous, vague horror stories where we laugh off industry trauma from several years ago and wrap it up with a couple fun quips and some advice.
But we're having this talk this week because some publishers don't seem to understand who all needs paid and when. I've seen a lot of writers and publishers both defending various amounts of tomfoolery lately, and this seems like a great time to discuss.
There are some gray areas here. I am more lenient about free labor in creative industries than some people, and I know others who give away their creative labor more freely than I do. I can't tell you that I and only I am right, but I can share with you my thoughts and the general consensus that I have been sneaking around to gather behind the scenes over the last couple weeks.
So, let's get into it.
Art for the Sake of Art
First and foremost I want to address an argument that I see a lot.
"People should create art for the sake of creating it, not to make money."
So, yes. But we live under late stage capitalism, so people need money. People also need art. Artists should already be making more than they do and there are times when free art is exploitative. If you're making art for yourself, that's fine, you don't have to do that for money. If you are making art for free and someone else is getting paid for it, that's exploitation.
If you, the publisher, are making money when the artists and writers in question are not, you are exploiting them. Even if your intentions were good at some point. Even if you don't mean to. Even, in some cases, when you're covering costs. There is an acceptable level of profit to be made, and we're going to be talking about where those lines can be drawn.
Now, this is the second most common argument I see in favor of exploitative publishers:
"They were clear in the submission call that this is not a paying venue."
I will admit, transparency goes a long way for me if it is full and honest transparency. If you, the publisher, are making a thing because you love art and want to provide an outlet for other people who also love art, and you can't afford to pay them, and you tell them that, I'm probably going to say that's okay.
To a certain extent, I'll even be okay if you sell that product. If the profits are going to covering costs of producing that product, I don't think that's an overly scammy thing to do to contributors. If you sell enough of them that you defy the odds and start turning a profit, I think the water gets murky very quickly.
I'm not going to begrudge an anthology editor the price of a cup of coffee if they sell more than expected. But the price of a cup of coffee every day for a month? A year? Five years? Life? There has to be a line somewhere. I can't tell you what it is, and everyone seems to have a different opinion on where it should be drawn.
But at some point, when you're making money for other people's art, and they're not, that it's going to make you look bad, even if you're honest about it.
Basic Payment Etiquette
Here are a couple basic practices that are widely considered good and will keep you out of trouble if you follow them.
Pay what you can
Do your best to meet rates that are fair
Pay on time
If there is a gap in between what you feel is fair and what you are able to pay, explain that. Again, transparency is key. Let your contributors know they're valued and you're doing your best, but publishing is expensive and then be open about those costs. Let it be a learning experience for everyone, yourself included.
And make sure everyone that you promised to pay is getting paid in full and on time. This should include editors, formatters, writers, and artists. If there's a delay, let them know when you know, and not whenever they work up the nerve to ask.
There are a couple exceptions to this. If you're doing some of the work yourself, like editing, it's okay not to pay the editor. That's you. If you took on the risk of doing a project, it's important to make sure the other people you contract are paid first.
Likewise, I have a job as an in-house formatter, and I am one of the last people to get paid. We're a very small operation that strives to put the writers first. That was in my contract, and I'm okay with it because it ensures that the people submitting stories are getting as much money as the press can afford to give them. It's not uncommon with small presses or micro presses for a lot of the initial labor to be unpaid. That's obviously not ideal, but it's part of finding footing in this space.
Wherever possible that risk should be assumed by the publisher and their team, not by the writers or the talent that needs to be contracted from out of house.
There are also some positions that it's generally considered okay to take as volunteers, which we can get into now.
Acceptable Volunteer Positions
Two of these should be really obvious, but we thought this entire topic was so obvious that we weren't initially going to cover it at all, and here we are. So let's talk about this.
ARC readers (Advance Reader Copy Readers, which is a redundant title when you spell it out) can also sometimes be referred to as the street team. These are reviewers who are given a copy of the book in advance to review or promote it. They are not paid except for in a free copy of the book, and publishers, please understand this is not legally binding. It's a social contract, but a flimsy one at best.
ARC readers work on their own schedule because they are unpaid, and there's always just a chance they won't like the book and will decide not to finish. That's okay.
Similarly, blurbs are not contractually binding. If you ask someone to blurb a book, you don't have to pay them, but you need to understand that this person does not work for you, and even if they accept a copy of the book, they have obligations of their own. Do not harass them, they are unpaid.
The one real position that it's basically acceptable to demand work and not pay the people doing it is for slush readers. That's traditionally a volunteer position and while some presses do pay for this, it's more or less okay not to if you let people know that when you put out the call for volunteers.
Slush reading is one of the most educational experiences you can have as a writer, and doing it looks great on a resume. If you're a publisher that offers a reference for this position, you're basically doing your part already. It's also a great gesture wherever possible to try and fill in-house positions for your press from your team of slush readers if they've been working with you across multiple projects.
Situations Where It's Okay NOT to Pay People
When it comes to everyone else, you should be paying them. There are only a few situations where it's ethically okay to not pay them.
If you're giving the project away for free (and the contributors knew this would be the case)
If you're raising money for a charity (and the contributors knew this would be the case.)
I am a huge advocate for charity anthologies. I try to submit to one at least every year because I love raising money for important causes. If a press is donating the profits to a charity, I don't care that I did the work for free.
Likewise, if a publisher is giving a project away as a promotion or for some sort of event, or hell, even just for the love of the craft, I'm usually okay submitting under those parameters. Some of my first ever publication credits were to online magazines that operated at a loss just to provide free fiction to people. They weren't making money, I wasn't making money, but they got content and I got exposure and edits and it felt like a fair trade.
Who SHOULD be Getting Paid
Who should NOT be Getting Paid
Listen, presses are expensive. Publishing is expensive. It really sucks that it's hard to make money in horror books, and that you have to basically be operating at a loss to not be exploitative. But if you are taking responsibility for the contributors and the team working underneath you, it means that you have to look out for them first.
Breaking even is great. Making money is great. But you can't make those things happen at the cost of taking money from the people who are creating what you're selling.
Horror Story Time
We are not a call out venue. This is not a call out series. We won't be naming any names here, and our intention is not to send any hate or trouble to any publishers because of this story.
But, we do always try to include personal experiences and anecdotes so that readers can see the effects of these hypotheticals in action.
A couple months ago I sent out a tweet condemning a very specific kind of publisher behavior -- publishers making money on anthologies where the writers were not paid. It blew up more than expected and in addition to the people asking me what happened, I also had a lot of people in my DMs telling me that they had experienced this exact kind of exploitation.
What had happened was that there was a particular anthology series that sent out an open call. It didn't seem harmful at the time, there were guidelines, there was complete transparency that the publisher could not afford to pay for the stories, but they wanted to do a book and promote some authors. Not ideal, but all the authors entered into this arrangement understanding the terms and wanting to be supportive.
The publisher collected stories, sent contracts, got a cover, did the formatting and editing themselves, and released it. They were surprised when it did well.
As someone with experience in the industry, you hear horror stories about how hard it is to make money doing anthologies, and this is probably the lens they were approaching the project through. You and I know that it's not nearly as hard to turn a profit when you've gotten basically all your labor for free.
The anthology did surprisingly well. It's hard to blame the publisher, they didn't know that it would sell any copies, let alone a lot. I'd argue at this point in the story this is more of an accident than intentional exploitation. The publisher then made the decision to reach out to the authors and ask what to do with the money from sales.
Now. You could give them the benefit of the doubt here, and say this was further transparency and not intended to be braggy or malicious. You could argue that letting the authors decide how to proceed with unexpected profits is a good thing. I've spoken to a handful of those authors who received this message and felt like it was a positive thing at the time they read it. Understandably, it rubbed others the wrong way.
If this were the end of the story, we could summarize it as poor planning/communication and let it go. But the story doesn't end here.
Some writers asked for a retroactive token payment (which I don't think is unreasonable) and a lot of writers asked to pay it forward and put the profits from issue one into making sure that issue 2 was paid. Only it was not a paid call.
The call went up for the second issue, promoting the success of the first issue, and still not offering payment to writers. And with each subsequent open call, the transparency got less transparent. Suddenly there was no mention of not being able to afford to pay writers, there was just no payment. There were no more messages about what to do with the profits, that information was just suddenly not worth sharing. Sales keep creeping up and the series is still going.
The Moral of the Story
Aside from just illustrating the points we've discussed today, and explaining to publishers why this type of exploitation is bad, I think it's also worth talking about the fallout that this had with the writers and some of the community.
Some of the writers did feel mistreated. I talked to a couple people who felt exploited by this situation, and understandably in some cases, bitter. Even the writers involved who were able to laugh it off or chalk it up as a learning experience, learned to be more wary of publishers.
It's good to be discerning, don't get me wrong. You have to value your own writing as a writer, or no one else will. But. I think we can all agree that situations that sow distrust in the indie publishing community are bad for all of us. We should be supporting each other and working to make this space better and more sustainable for everyone.
I hate that some publishers feel like because they have power over the writers, they can do whatever they want. The bigger a publisher gets, the scarier it gets to come forward about grievances, especially if an author can be tricked into thinking they're overreacting. I have personally talked to people in this incident, and have had comments come through third parties about this incident, and a major commonality was that none of the writers wanted to be named and felt more comfortable if I did not name the anthology.
Obviously, I don't want to do anything that makes them feel unsafe. But I do think it's tragic that everyone was so worried about the fallout of standing up to a press when they didn't do anything wrong. They feel like the contract protects the publisher, even though the contract is bad, and take blame onto themselves for signing.
This was an instance when transparency was used like a shield, even though it doesn't fix the actions.
I don't have any big resolution to that story, but I can tell you after some investigative research, submission numbers have dropped. Sales are less promising for the future installations. Respected authors from early ToCs are quietly spreading the word they would not publish again. It's starting to catch up to them, and there may well be fallout from this on the horizon.
I don't think we should villainize all indie publishers who are just doing their best. In fact, I love indie publishers who are taking risks and showcasing voices even though anthologies are uphill battles, and striving to find new ways to make these stories work in a bad market.
But I do think, that if you're a publisher, you need to be prepared for the costs and the hurdles that you're going to encounter taking on big projects. I think if you want to make it, truly make it in this business, and stick around for the long haul, you need to earn and maintain the trust of the creatives that you hope to platform.
It really sucks that the credibility of the entire industry can be hit by grifters and amateurs and people who don't realize the harm they're doing when they exploit writers. But until the world gets better, we all need to be mindful of whether we're helping or hurting others in the space.