Protecting Yourself and Your Writing

As a writer, you’ve probably been offered the well-intentioned advice to “Never let yourself be exploited” or “Make sure you don’t get taken.” These are worthy sentiments, but in practice they have about as much value as “Don’t get cancer” and “Don’t wreck your car.”

In this newsletter I will get much more practical and specific. Let’s begin with the most basic question: How can you tell that someone is trying to exploit you?

Odds are good that someone is trying to take you for a ride if:

  • They want all rights to your work, in perpetuity, in exchange for little or no money.
  • Although the publisher or publication is well known, its editor offers you a “standard contract” that doesn’t even mention payment to you.
  • The editor gets angry or offended in response to any attempt you make to improve their offer.
  • The editor accuses you of being unprofessional.

A surprising number of well-known and well-respected publishers initially offer such crummy deals, especially to writers who haven’t published much before. This doesn’t mean that you always need to walk away from such situations. In my experience, when an editor or publisher offers me an unreasonable deal and I respond politely but firmly with a reasonable counteroffer, about half the time we’re able to come to terms.

The other half of the time when I make a reasonable counteroffer, the editor or publisher quickly disappears (in some cases, after first calling me unreasonable or unprofessional). Their quick disappearance only confirms that they never wanted or envisioned a win-win partnership in the first place. If this happens to you, don’t berate yourself for losing a deal; instead, congratulate yourself for standing firm in the face of potential exploitation—and be glad for all the trouble and heartache you’ve saved yourself.

If you have worries, doubts, or concerns about a particular publisher or publication, check it out on Writer Beware at http://www.sfwa.org/Beware and/or Preditors & Editors at http://anotherealm.com/prededitors/ especially its Warnings page. Both sites are sponsored by science fiction writers’ organizations, but both cover editors and publications of all types. FYI, the word “preditors” is not a misspelling of “predators,” but a sniglet meaning predatory editors.

If you’ve written material for film or TV, you can and should take the precaution of registering each script, treatment, outline, or concept with the professional association of television and film writers, The Writers Guild of America. The WGA has two branches: WGA West, in Los Angeles, and WGA East, in New York. Both offer similar registration services; the cost is $10 per item for members, $20-22 per item for nonmembers. Because film and TV producers are, in general, less honest than print and online publishers (and play producers), I strongly recommend registering your TV and film material with the WGA before putting it into producers’ or agents’ hands. However, it is neither necessary nor cost-effective to use this service for books, short prose pieces, poems, stage plays, or any other material not for film or television, even though such registrations are permitted.

Here are some other things you don’t need to do to protect your work:

  • Copyright it before sending it out. (It’s neither necessary nor helpful to copyright a piece until it has been published or performed. At that point it should be registered with the Copyright Office; however, with rare exceptions, your publisher will automatically do this.)
  • Type a copyright notice on your manuscript. Editors are well aware that your work belongs to you—and that copyright law applies to it.
  • Indicate on the manuscript what rights are available. (You’ll have a chance to negotiate rights once an editor offers to publish your work.)
  • Email or snail mail a copy to yourself. (I’m not sure how people came to believe that this is necessary or helpful, but it’s neither.)

Is the business of writing a jungle? Yes, but no more a jungle than most retail, manufacturing, or service businesses. It’s important to protect your interests and be wary of scam artists and exploitation—but don’t assume that everyone is out to get you, either. Employ the same level of care, attention, and confidence that you would in crossing a busy street, and you’ll probably do fine in the long run.