“In a way, we were robbed thrice.”
Earlier today, the review site The Ginger Nuts of Horror released an update regarding the situation at Spectral Press. As usual, I advise anyone of interest (particularly fellow writers) to read the original post before continuing with my observations on the matter.
But for those who just need a recap, Spectral Press has declared itself in financial straits. Owner Simon Marshall-Jones also mentioned health problems, to which I wish him health and speedy recovery. But with regard to the former issue, The Ginger Nuts of Horror will be altering its policies.
- They will no longer review works that offer only exposure.
- They will firmly vet small press publishers to prevent abuse.
- They have shown concerns regarding fair payment.
I applaud points one and two with alacrity. The third point I’d like to discuss because of vagueness in need of redress. Particularly on the subject of the token payment system (ah yes, TPS reports) and business growth.
My friends and I have all made erroneous steps once or twice in the (mine)field of the small press industry; tiny businesses who exist thanks to the ease of Amazon’s print-on-demand and eBook publishing services. We know better than to submit for “exposure.” And any publisher who too readily accepts our work likely has a quality problem. Despite our cautions, we still made mistakes.
We have been victim of at least one publishing company who failed to make the promised royalty payments when it formally closed its doors. Not only did they fail to deliver the meager earnings owed, but the returned stories could not be published anywhere without the less valuable “reprint” status.
These stories were some of our best work too, now reduced in value. And worse, because these anthologies were on-and-off the market in a mere four months, even the promised exposure failed to really materialize.
In a way, we were robbed thrice.
It’s nothing new however. The problem of troubled publishers failing to pay their authors is far older than Amazon. Even legends like Robert E. Howard suffered. When the author died in 1936, Weird Tales still owed him at least $800. Adjusted for inflation, that’s around $13,800 by today’s standard. A serious chunk of change.
In an ideal world, we would be paid the professional rate of $.05 a word, at the very least. But as book sales drive compensation, it’s not uncommon to settle for something less if only to get both companies’ and authors’ feet in the door. As I read and reread The Ginger Nuts’ statement, I began to wonder what and how they defined fair payment.
Payments from small press generally come in two forms: royalties and token, both with boons and burdens.
Royalties cost the company little up front, as they instead divide and deliver percentages of the sales to the authors for as long as the book remains on the market. If the book does well and the percentages fair, the authors will probably make better than a token payment. For the companies, royalties also encourage authors to get out there and sell the books direct, as they have an on-going incentive. The downsides? Royalties can be nil if the book doesn’t sell, and the author and company could end with nothing. Plus, royalties have to be paid periodically.
Token payments come with a whole different set of pros and cons, an upfront payment for temporary publishing rights. The downside is that it’s an upfront cost to the company, while the authors gain the benefit of immediate pay. The authors have less incentive to promote their work– they’ve already been paid. On the flip side, once the book surmounts those costs, the company begins earning pure passive-profit that the authors never see.
I can tell you from experience that capital-intensive token payments are much easier for all parties. After the Bolthole anthologies were released, I had to hound a couple of authors every few quarters, telling them to update their rejected PayPal contact information. Calculating totals wasn’t fun.
I also learned to set aside capital from my pocket to pay authors as on-time as possible– PayPal can have delays three to five day long when transferring funds. Geez. I almost forgot I have to do that this week for Far Worlds.
But I digress.
Still, there is a potential problem with the token payment system. When a publisher is young, a low token payment is probably fine– If authors don’t like it, they shouldn’t submit. But persistently low payments are telling. If a publisher opens in 2012 and offers $10 for short stories, and in 2016 they’re still offering only $10 for submissions, then either:
- A) Check with the prior authors and see if they’ve been paid. If they haven’t been, there’s a good chance the publisher is hoping the next release will be a strong enough ROI to cover all debts. In which case, don’t trust them.
- B) The publisher is barely breaking even, which is neither good nor damning.
- C) The publisher is making bank from the difference of cost against profit.
A is the worst case scenario. Obviously an author shouldn’t submit to them, as the publisher is outright gambling that book sales will turn around their situation. B (if you can prove it) is not great either, and should lead authors to question the publisher’s direction.
But of these options, C is the most complicated. It means that the publisher is actually growing, but is milking the situation instead of upping payments for the benefit of their authors. Admittedly, publishers need capital to grow; to pay for site improvements and better art, to launch bigger projects and so forth. Yet they’re not helping their authors grow with them. If evidence suggests C, quality authors could and should go elsewhere.
How do you prove B versus C? Well, it would help if publishers were more forthright about their sales data. If not, you can try to make estimates against the book’s sales rankings on Amazon. You can also watch their website. Did they suddenly get way better looking banners and artwork? Are they obtaining costly features and plugins? Did they just procure an author you’ve actually heard of for a novel?
But before you jump to conclusions, dig deeper. Make sure that one of their staff isn’t an experienced web developer or artist. Or that they weren’t already friends with the author long before the company came into existence. Or perhaps they’re infusing their own, private money into improvements (in which case, they’re bloody awesome). If they’re using available resources and skills to get out of option B, you can’t blame them.
But if you are one of those C optioned publishers reading this, I’d advise you to raise your rates. If your response is that it’s a hobby and not a business… well, you’re going to have a bad time. Because for authors and writers out there, it is a business. It’s our business.
Treat it with respect or walk on.