Tasty, Tasty Gazelles

A friend of mine in college used to refer to the Discovery Channel as the “What’s Eating the Gazelle Today” station. If you paid attention to the proud majestic carnivores, you got a wonderful and varied show. If you paid attention to what they ate, you saw the same thing over and over.

New writers are a prey species. There are many practices, ranging from outright scams to mere obtuseness, that work because new writers are proud and insecure and mostly ignorant of how things usually go. But just like the gazelle, it mostly boils down to: paying too little money (or paying negative money), grabbing too many rights, and providing too little in return.

The recent one to hit was over the OMNI reboot. The fine folks at Writer Beware were given a copy of a contract that a writer had received, and pointed out that it is deeply crappy. Essentially, the contract says this: “This contract grants us the copyright of the story, meaning all of the rights for this piece forever, and once you’ve signed this contract, we will negotiate another contract for payment.”

First: it is not normal to sell all of the rights to a story. The author does not sell the copyright, usually ever, and only sells exclusive right to print for a limited time. It is normal for a contract to strictly describe the limits of what a publisher plans to do with a story.

Second: it is not normal for a contract to not detail compensation. Compensation includes what money is paid now, whether the author gets free or reduced-priced copies of the magazine/book, what money might be paid if the publisher wants to make further use of the story, how the story is to be credited, etc.

I feel pretty comfortable calling that a bad fiction contract. It is how new writers get eaten by hyenas.

Now, the OMNI folks responded on Twitter, saying:

The contract terms given are slightly less terrible for work-for-hire, it’s true. If someone hires you to write something ahead of time, they may very well buy copyright. But the contract should still include compensation and not kick it to a subsequent contract. That is how new writers get eaten by lions.

As you know, I think more highly of ‘malicious’ than I do of ‘incompetent’. And sending the wrong contract is definitely a claim of incompetence. But I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt that this really is malicious behavior, for a couple reasons.

First, the Writer Beware folks have been around the block a few times, and have seen a number of contracts. If presented with a normal work-for-hire contract (which would typically contain a subtle phrase like “work-for-hire”) I am confident they would recognize it.

Second, this sounds a LOT like a very common situation. Publishers, bless their hearts, will sometimes offer new writers a rather terrible contract with big rights grabs and not much money. Some of these new writers will squawk, and the publisher will go “Oh! I’m sorry, that’s the wrong contract!” or “Oh, I’m sorry, that’s an old contract!” or just “OK, how about this” and then offer a more reasonable one that just happens to already be drafted. This is how some new writers get eaten by crocodiles — for every writer that squawks, another is too starstruck at getting a contract to read it carefully, and yet another is worried that complaining will mean the acceptance is retracted.

(Fun fact: Legitimate publishers do not retract an acceptance just because you want to negotiate terms. They might say “We have no room to negotiate” or just “No”, but people who are not out to screw you do not respond to “Can we talk about this contract term?” with “No contract for you!”)

Third, look downstream in that conversation to where a couple smart folks make a couple smart points:

Well, let’s have a look at their submissions guidelines as they stand today (quoted to give them room to make changes for the better):

OMNI Reboot accepts fiction submissions. OMNI Reboot is interested in experimental, innovative, and compelling fiction from both emerging and established writers. Please keep in mind that OMNI Reboot is a webzine about the future, and thus not interested in nostalgia, sexism or racism unless it is relevant and informative about it’s relationship to the future. Stories must be well-written and easy to read on a screen—please consider the medium.

Please do not send us reprints. Attach your story, formatted in a clear and reasonable manner, as either an .RTF of .DOC file.

Word Count: 1,500 word minimum to a 4,000 word maximum

If you haven’t looked at a lot of fiction submissions guidelines, this might not look all that weird. If you want to look at better guidelines, have a look at those of the online magazine Strange Horizons. Notice the difference? The OMNI guidelines are all about what they want from you, and say nothing about what you can expect in return. This is how new writers get eaten by, um, boa constrictors. Anyway, let’s break down that nothing:

  • Nothing about payment
  • Nothing about when you can expect to hear back
  • Nothing about what rights they’re buying

There is never nothing being offered, though. Even when it’s not stated, there is at least some implied reason someone would send a story to them for publication. As near as I can tell, the reason they’re offering is… “You get to see your story in our shiny cool magazine!” It’s not quite what folks might call a dog whistle in other contexts, but the new writer hears that message loud and clear, and it’s how they get eaten by… Christ, do elephants eat gazelles? Probably.

When Matt Wallace said, “nobody should ever have to ask”, he was getting at this point: it should be completely freaking obvious when you have gotten the wrong contract, because you should have been told the basic contract terms before you ever had the opportunity to submit the story. You should already know pay rate and what rights are bought and what they’re going to do with it, and so it should be clear when you were given the wrong contract.

Let me repeat that. If a new writer is given the wrong contract, they should be able to easily deduce the fact from information readily available to them. If you have to explain it on Twitter, you have screwed up very badly.

For the vanity googlers at OMNI, I recommend the following course of action:

  • Put a sample contract online
  • Clearly post pay rates, rights purchased (do not ask for copyright), and other items of interest on the submissions page
  • Check your records to see who else got the wrong, or “wrong”, contract, and offer them a better one

Having done this, feel free to get your kicks in at other magazines who don’t measure up! Wear steel-toed shoes. Get a “Save the Gazelles” bumper sticker. Half the fun of learning a lesson is teaching it to others! “Go forth and sin no more” is low expectations-ville. Go do what’s right so that you get pointed to as a good example next time someone else pulls crap like this.

For everyone else, if you know any writers (and like them), make sure they know about Writer Beware. They’re good people and smart people who look out for gazelles.

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