Friday, 13 April 2018

And that's the worst that can happen?

I was thinking of titling this post 'Meditations on editorial correspondence III', or some such, as it seems to fit into that thread.  But, unlike earlier postings, nobody's wearing a black hat; everybody appears to be on the side of the angels.  And the worst that anybody can be accused of is over-complication.

It concerns my dealings with Vice Media and its web-based publishing venture, Terraform.  Which, on the whole, have been perfectly pleasurable.  If complicated.

I'd submitted four stories to them previously.  All of them were received with a wall of silence; but that's okay, they make it clear that they only respond in order to accept and you should assume the worst after four months.  It's not the typical way to run a publishing endeavour, but that's their privilege, and the important thing is that they make the process crystal clear up front.

My fifth story, A Second Opinion, hit the target.  A story that either is "difficult... quiet but fascinating" or "doesn't actually seem to do much", depending on which side of the critical bed you got out.  It was accepted in January and ran the next month, all without edits being asked for.  From the outside looking in, all very smooth.

But this hides a somewhat odd process, which ended up kicking up a bit of dust on Absolute Write.

You see, the way the contractual/purchasing (rather than editing) side typically works is that the writer gets an email accepting the work, followed by a contract, which will set out rights and payments.  Sign, scan and return, assuming all is well.

Not with Terraform.  Sure, they send out a contract but, as far as the bespoke bits particular to you and your story, it's blank.  Yep, blank.  You even get to fill in the payment amount.

And publication isn't dependent on signing and returning the contract.  Mine is still somewhere in a pile of papers on my desk.  Why?  Well, partially a stereotypical writer's way with paperwork, but mainly having been put through the wringer with Terraform's invoicing process.

They ask you to send an invoice - remember, after you, the writer, have specified the amount, even though they specify the payment per word.  Given virtually every small publisher I've dealt with insists on payment via PayPal, I sent a PayPal invoice.

No, no.  Not PayPal, they said, and sent me an email address specifically for invoices.  So I ran one up in the style of my non-writing working life.

Only at this point did they send me their invoicing requirements, needing IBAN numbers and W-8BEN forms.  So, a morning was spent finding out what an IBAN number was and, more specifically, what mine is.  Quite why they need to make matters so complicated is beyond me.  Are they paranoid lawyers, seeing litigation at every turn?  Have they been bruised by the IRS before and are playing it with an absolutely straight bat?  Maybe everybody else is getting it wrong?

That bureaucratic dragon slayed, the important thing to stress is that payment was made exactly as they said it would be.  My story was published, and I got paid - at $0.20 per word, well above the 'professional' minimum.  What's not to like?  Like I said, what's the worst that can happen?

Well, Victoria Strauss of the SFWA, gave me an answer:

Thanks for sharing the contract and the emails. I really appreciate it.

It's a poor contract, and not just because of the blanks. You were right to ask for something to be added to address the possibility that Vice wound up not publishing the story--as the contract is written, if that happens there is no provision at all for the grant of rights to terminate. They just kind of slid over that point without addressing it. They are also incorrect in stating that "all rights revert to you" three months after publication. After the three months, Vice retains non-exclusive rights "in perpetuity," which means they could produce any number of reprints or anthologies with your story in them and never pay you another penny.  They can also assign those rights to any third party they please. You're getting paid, and you retain copyright and the right to re-publish your story, but you are also losing control of it, given the wide-ranging publication and assignment rights that Vice retains.

I also find it bizarre, and not at all professional, that they would publish your story without a signed contract in hand. That's just foolish. Contracts also protect a publisher.

Obviously that is a worst case scenario, and what is much more likely to happen is that Vice displays your story, maybe puts it in an anthology somewhere down the road, and that's it. But in evaluating publishing contracts, you always need to consider the worst-case scenario that's presented by the literal contract language, and ask yourself if you're comfortable with that, even if it's a remote possibility.

I've already, after a great deal of thought, turned down an offer of publication of a story on the grounds that the publisher was so under the radar that I didn't believe anybody would get to read it.  It made me question my professional approach to writing short fiction, and I decided that it was to draw people to my longer works, such as '2084'.  Short fiction, I concluded after that experience, is merely a means to an end - did somebody say 'starvation' at the back? - no, I mean, drawing readers into your wider storyverse.

So, the worst that could happen is that... Vice Media may run it again and... more people may read it...

As long as it still has my name on it and, ideally, a bio and a mention of my other works, that sounds like wins all round to me.

PS - and, yes, that kill fee from Carrie Cuinn's still outstanding...

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