Friday, December 13, 2013

Crowdfunded Anthologies: Concerns For Writers

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Anthologies, once a staple of genre publishing, have become a rarity at major publishing houses over the past couple of decades.

Small presses still embrace the anthology format, however, as do genre readers--at least, judging by the number of small press or one-off genre anthology projects on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter. While most of these campaigns are completely above-board, some are less so, and their growing popularity makes it vital for writers to be aware of several areas of concern. (Donors, too. Do you really want to give money to an anthology that doesn't treat its writers fairly?)

Donating backer prizes.

Many crowdfunded anthologies ask or expect their authors to donate prizes for campaign backers--a story critique, a Tuckerization, an illustration, an item of the author's choice.

From the perspective of the anthology's publisher or organizer, the benefits are obvious: more (and more tempting) backer incentives increase the chances of a successful campaign. For authors, though, things are not so clear-cut, and I've seen quite a bit of discussion of the ethics of being asked or expected to donate freebies. Some writers don't mind, especially where there's no pressure, but others worry about what seems to be a growing assumption that authors owe extra support to crowdfunded anthologies that include their work.

Small press publisher Steven Saus, who has conducted a number of Kickstarter campaigns, addresses this issue in an interesting post on how to manage backer rewards in an ethical fashion. This includes providing a written document or contract specifically addressing rewards.
The important features of such a contract will be:
  • Who is involved (organizer, author)
  • That ONLY if the crowdfunding succeeds, the author will offer a backer reward.
  • A clear explanation of the Reward
  • A timetable of delivery/fulfillment of the Reward
  • Any costs or reimbursement involved, as needed
  • That the offering of the Reward is independent of the contract for the story in the anthology
Short of that (and I don't know for sure, but I'll bet there aren't may Kickstarter anthologists who are as scrupulous as Steven), you can protect yourself by clarifying upfront with the anthology's editor what, if anything, will be expected of you in addition to your story.

Rights and payment.

With many anthology crowdfunding campaigns, the anthology doesn't yet exist. It may be an idea that will be pursued only if funding is raised, or it may have particular authors attached who've promised stories but haven't yet written them.

Other campaigns have already done all or most of the work: invited submissions, selected stories, even issued contracts. But is that ethical, if author payment is contingent on a successful campaign? If the campaign fails and the anthology is abandoned, authors have basically written a story for free. Sure, they can try to sell it elsewhere, but that may not be so easy if the anthology has a narrowly-defined theme.

And what happens to authors' rights if the campaign fails and the anthology is not abandoned? If contracts have been signed, authors' rights could be tied up for an indefinite period of time while the publisher or organizer tries to figure out what to do. Not to mention, whatever payment structure may initially have been promised may now not be possible.

If you're asked to sign a contract prior to completion of a campaign, make sure there's language covering what happens in the event of campaign failure: automatic rights reversion, for instance, or the option of terminating the contract on your own. Alternatively, the contract could allow the publisher or organizer to hold your rights only for a limited period--for instance, 12 months from contract signing.

Steven Saus suggests another possibility: solicit the stories, assemble the anthology, but don't issue contracts until after the campaign closes.
So yes, these authors wrote a story prior to the Kickstarter. Some of them have been waiting a few months now after acceptance. But the stories are still theirs. They haven’t actually sold me the story yet… because I haven’t paid them and they haven’t signed a contract. If the Kickstarter doesn’t fund, I will offer a different funding mechanism… and the authors can accept or reject it as they feel appropriate. Simple as that.
Becoming a backer for an anthology you may also want to submit to.

In some of the crowdfunding discussions I've seen, it's been proposed that campaigns should maintain a wall between backers and contributors: i.e., if you back the campaign you can't submit to the anthology, and if you want to submit to the anthology, you can't back the campaign.

At first glance, this seems like a pretty obvious way to avoid conflicts of interest. However, writers are also readers, and some people feel that such a policy could have a chilling effect on donations, or push publishers toward eliminating open submissions.

Once again, Steven Saus--who has been doing a lot of thinking about these issues, and, as far as I'm aware, is the only small press publisher to have crafted a detailed crowdfunding policy--offers an alternative:
In such instances that an open call occurs after the successful completion of a crowdfunding campaign, the submissions editor(s) will not have access to the lists of backers, nor will the organizer of the campaign have access to the lists of submitters.

Should a submitter refer to their level of backing of the crowdfunding campaign in the submission, cover letter, or correspondence with the submission editor(s) prior to story acceptance or rejection, the submission will be summarily rejected.
Preferential treatment.

It should go without saying that authors shouldn't be able to buy their way into a crowdfunded anthology, either by donating money or contributing prizes.

However, there are plenty of anecdotes about preferential treatment--anthologies that offer an early submission window to writers who back the campaign, or give priority to authors who commit to buying the anthology once it's published, or limit acceptance to authors with a history of vigorous self-promotion, even if their stories are inferior to non-promoters'. Or this campaign, which offered the following donor prize:
Pledge $300 or more
KAIJU CREATOR: Write your own Kaiju-inspired short story and submit it to Ragnarok Publications EIC, Tim Marquitz, for a thorough edit AND the potential—no guarantees, but likely—to have it included in the Kaiju Rising anthology! Yes, you have an inside shot at having your story in the book, but you MUST understand that Ragnarok Publications will have COMPLETE EDITORIAL DOMAIN over your story to assure it meets professional standards of quality and you will sign a contract giving Ragnarok publication rights for a limited period of time, however YOU will retain the copyright to your story and be credited as the story's author. You'll also get everything in the Kaiju Soldier tier. NOTE: The funds in this tier primarily go to cover the cost of editorial services.
Even if payments or donations aren't a requirement for submission, this give something/get something approach comes perilously close to vanity publishing. At the very least, it's a conflict of interest--plus, it has the potential to drag down the anthology's quality.

The problem is, such policies may not always be officially stated. Protect yourself by researching the anthology's publisher or organizer as thoroughly as you can.

Donations--whether money or services--as a requirement for submission.

I've seen two crowdfunded anthology projects with this requirement (unfortunately, neither is still online, so I can't provide links). This is vanity publishing, and it's completely unethical. Both authors and donors should avoid any crowdfunding campaign where a purchase or a donation is a requirement for submission.

In closing...

The crowdfunding universe is still new, and rapidly evolving. Will it continue to expand exponentially? Will backer fatigue eventually clip its growth? No one knows. In the meantime, one thing is certain: as with just about every aspect of writing and publishing, there's plenty of room for author exploitation. Be on your guard.

I'd like to eventually incorporate this information into the Writer Beware website, so I'm looking for input--thoughts, questions, suggestions for other issues of concern. Please comment here, or to contact me via email.

#sfwapro

12 comments:

Peter Dudley said...

Although I do believe crowdfunding has its proper uses, I am not a fan of it in general. I think there's a kind of a naive gold rush to crowdfunding everything without giving much thought to whether it's the right/best way to proceed. (Not unlike a naive gold rush to self publishing.)

I've been watching a different kind of crowdfunding case recently, and I think it's just as risky for writers but in a different way. What you've laid out is if someone else is crowdfunding an anthology and you're a writer--what you should watch for, etc.

But I know of several different writing groups/classes/workshops that publish anthologies. Two different examples illustrate the risk for these groups:

1. The coordinator understands self publishing and has done her homework. She has hired an editor, cover designer, and layout help for reasonable prices and will self-publish the anthology for her group, on the understanding that the group will work to sell enough copies to cover costs. Totally legit, they know what they're getting, and the coordinator is taking the financial risk on herself.

2. The coordinator has talked to a "publishing consultant" who says it costs $X (WAY too much) to publish an anthology, and crowdfunding is a great way to make it happen. Thus, the group has become a fundraiser for these charlatans (strong word, but I think they are severely overcharging for something that is really cheap). They'll get their anthology in the end, but friends and family are shelling out a lot of money in the crowdfunding, then will also pay for copies of the anthology when it's published.

Profiteering off the naivete of trusting writers is nothing new. The problem here isn't a scam (I fully believe the group will get their anthology and it will be professionally done) but being WAY overcharged because the group doesn't have enough knowledge to understand they are paying 10x what they should. Even though I've tried to explain, they continue down this path. But hey, it's their money, right? Oh wait it isn't. That's the beauty of crowdfunding, and the new angle a con artist can use to wring money out of trusting but naive writers.

Sheryl Nantus said...

My biggest concern and it might only be a quibble because I'm not that smart... where's the risk to the publisher?

A publisher has to make a financial commitment to the author, backing that story/anthology up with their cold hard cash.

With crowdfunding I see almost no risk to the publisher in the long run. They get the money to print the anthology, pay the authors and make a profit without any financial risk or devotion on their part.

It just seems wrong to me. The potential for abuse of both the authors and the readers seems too great.

But, again, I might be missing something major in my viewpoint. I stand to be corrected if wrong.

johnmurphy said...

Thanks for a great article. I've contributed to several Kickstarted anthologies, some run by friends, some by strangers, and so far I've been happy with the results.

But I think Sheryl has the right of it: there's a common tendency here for publishers to try to push too much risk onto authors, artists, and (now) readers and fans, that needs to be scrutinized. On the one hand, reducing risk (which, let's be fair, isn't just money but also time and reputation) makes it possible for chancy projects to go forward. Reducing risk judiciously is an important part of any publishing project.

On the other hand, if the publisher has minimized their risk, then they have less incentive to get it right, and less incentive to market the result. While I'm sure most of the editors out there want to do right by their contributors and backers by putting together a quality product and flogging it for all it's worth... there's something to be said for being in the position where they feel that they have to.

Victoria Strauss said...

Good points, Peter. Thank you.

Sheryl--I don't think you're missing something, and that's definitely a concern, especially in the "naive gold rush" situations Peter mentions.

My impression is that a lot of Kickstarters are intended to fund production, and possibly marketing, costs, but aren't intended to generate a profit. If profit were built into the campaign goal, I think it would be another instance in which crowdfunding becomes really questionable--a problem not just for writers (who are stuck with a publisher that lacks the incentive that risk builds into the equation) but for backers, who are basically being overcharged.

Trouble is, how can you tell? A couple of things I can think of: look for Kickstarters where the costs are broken out, so you know what actually goes into the campaign goal; and stick with known quantities--publishers with a track record, or, if the project is helmed by an author or authors, those with experience. Avoid Kickstarters where the publisher's or organizers credentials are murky, especially one-offs by people you've never heard of and can't research.

All good food for thought. Please keep the comments coming.

Daisy said...

"If profit were built into the campaign goal, I think it would be another instance in which crowdfunding becomes really questionable"

I actually disagree with this, to some level, though I'm coming at it as a backer rather than a writer. When I back a project on Kickstarter, I see it mostly as pre-ordering something that I want (though usually with the added feeling that I am contributing to something that otherwise might not have happened). From that perspective, I don't mind if the seller is making a profit, because I expect someone to profit off of most of the things I buy.

How that affects the question of paying the authors/publisher risk is another matter.

Steven Saus said...

One small quibble for Victoria - I'm the publisher, not the anthologist. I owe a lot to the anthologists I've worked with - Sarah Hans, Nayad Monroe, Jennifer Brozek, Paul Genesse, and Sabrina Klein - and don't want to minimize them.

Peter: You're absolutely right, but I don't think that's a danger unique to crowdfunding. FWIW, I think writing groups (or other collections) need to have something more unifying than "we know each other" before trying to publish an anthology... so as a business move, I would (and have) advise them to get a better pitch together than that. That said, point them at my standards - that's kind of the point of why I wrote them up and have them posted so publicly.

Sheryl - You're also correct. And sometime soon, the big publishers are going to try to minimize their risk. And that's crappy.

For publishers my size (micro- and small-), however, it means that we can offer competitive rates as advances or flat rate payments. While I've paid over $0.05/word for my royalty-only anthos, it can take a while. The crowdfunded ones let me do that right up front. Which is a great feeling.

And as far as getting it right, which both Sheryl and John Murphy hit on, well, yeah. That could be. But that sort of thing tends to bite you in the tuckus before too long. I remember hearing one bookseller refer dismissively to the book a story of mine was in as "Oh, another of those DAW anthologies. They churn those out."

Damn, that still burns.

Anyway, yeah. I see how someone could treat it that way. But word gets around fast, and this is one case where I think the market will correct itself.

Steven Saus said...

"When I back a project on Kickstarter, I see it mostly as pre-ordering something that I want (though usually with the added feeling that I am contributing to something that otherwise might not have happened)."

Big, really important note: Legally you are not pre-ordering anything on Kickstarter. Ever. It may not seem like a big distinction, but it's hugely important.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, I have done it that way too, basically as a pre-order, only once, but the author was someone I knew was reliable, there was a sample of the art on the site and while they didn't get all the money they had aimed for, they still published and honoured the "rewards". And now they're doing an audiobook and reprinting.

I can see, though, that you'd have to be careful with anthologies.

Will Lutwick, Authori of "Dodging Machetes" said...

Seems to me one potential scam is selling writing students stories as if they are accomplished writers. So the scam is mainly on the general reading public. Book quality and credibility has been severely watered down with self-publishing (and yes, my only published book is self-published) where anybody can self-publish, so anybody does. And yes there are some gems inside that pile of rubble. But the more rubble and hype we add, the harder it is to find the gems.

Also, I don't think anthologies sell very well, so it's kind of a loseing proposition for everyone, except maybe the organizer of the pay-now efforts.

Steven Saus said...

@Sue - While I understand that it seems like a pre-order from a backer's perspective (and I do whatever I can to make the experience like that), it's an important legal distinction between donating/contributing money, investing, and purchasing. Kickstarter is VERY clear and insistent that the latter two do not apply.

@Will - While I recognize Sturgeon's Law, I also recognize that increasing the sample size means that you get more of the "gems". All I can do is ensure that I hit the mark more often than not, including my selections of what anthology pitches to accept.

Doug Brunell said...

Great points brought up here. I've been asked to be in anthologies in the past. Some seemed good, some very bad, but all were before Kickstarter. If I get the invite again, I now know what to look for. Danke.

Annetta Ribken said...

I published an anthology last year based on the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana of the Tarot.

Before I even launched the Kickstarter campaign, I had a game plan. The anthology was going to be published whether I hit my goal or not--and I hit 75%. It was by invitation only. I contacted all the authors I had in mind, created a Facebook group where we could brainstorm, lined up my editor, formatter, and cover artist, set up a marketing plan. Only THEN did I launch the Kickstarter.

I detailed the budget, made a trailer video, and the group of writers were instrumental in getting the word out. Even though we didn't hit our goal, the vibe of working together on this project was amazing. One of the best experiences of my life.

I issued contracts, got the stories (which blew my socks off) and delivered on every single perk offered. It was a massive amount of work, and I have yet to recoup what I invested. But that really wasn't the important thing, to me. It was putting out a quality product that did justice to the faith the backers and the writers had in me to pull it off. And we did.

I am very proud of what we accomplished, and of the end product. Trust me, there was a huge investment by me, the editor, in getting this off the ground and making it a reality. Even if I never make a red cent off of it, it was worth it for the experience.