Over the last year, I’ve sent the manuscript for my memoir to dozens of agents and small presses, waiting to find that right fit at the right time. A month or two ago, I thought perhaps that moment had arrived. A publisher based in the UK requested to see my full manuscript. A few weeks later, a thick envelope arrived in the mail, all decorated with international postage and post office scrawlings. I knew what was in there. Oh god, I knew what was in there.
Except I didn’t. Not exactly. There was a publishing contract in there for sure. Two copies. But the cover letter on top staunched my excitement before I had a chance to even open the contract.
“Although the forecast for [sales and target audience] were looking optimistic, there were certain reservations put forward concerning the fact that this would be the work of a relatively new author, and would be of some risk to us as your publishers. To this end…we are not able to offer you a non contribution based contract…We do, however, feel your work deserves to be published…As a result, we would like to offer you a contribution based contract, therefore making this work as a partnership.”
Where to start, where to start. Let’s go with the beginning.
“Although the forecast for sales and target audience were looking optimistic…” So–they’re not looking optimistic now? What happened? We didn’t even go to press, let alone market. Was there a downturn in people interested in kidney donation stories between December and February?
“…there were certain reservations put forward concerning the fact that this would be the work of a relatively new author, and would be of some risk to us as your publishers…” Yes. Risk. That’s your job. I write it, you risk it, we share in the outcome, however happy or miserable. If you really believed in my work the way I do, you’d take the risk. If not, well that’s fine, but say so. Don’t try to squeeze me for cash I don’t have. I’m an author, not a dollar sign. Or a pounds sterling sign. Whatever, you get the point.
“…We do, however, feel that your work deserves to be published…” You sure do have a roundabout way of saying so. Oh, I’d love to go on a date with you, but it turns out I’m busy forever…Wait, would that be in cash?… (I’d draw the comparison to an escort here, but hopefully you’ve done that for yourself by now.)
“…we would like to offer you a contribution based contract…” Soooooo you want me to pay to publish my work? Because it sounds like you want me to pay to publish my work. Which is also called self-publishing. Which I could have done without a query or a contract.
“…therefore making this work as a partnership.” And if you published my work without my contribution, that would fall short of a partnership because…?
Okay, enough ellipses and question marks. Let me sum up here.
Contribution based contracts are tempting unless you stop to think about it. That’s because anyone who has ever wanted to be published and worked tirelessly to that end sees a dim light at the end of the tunnel. It’s not as useful or pretty a light as you’d have liked, but the darkness is oh, so lonely. And while £2,300.00 is a lot of money, can you really put a price on having your name in print?
Yes. Yes, you can. And that price is $0.00.
A contribution based contract isn’t really a contract at all–not one that benefits the writer, anyway. By signing such a contract, not only do you end up paying more than you’d pay for self-publishing, but you’re also signing away the rights to your work. Let me say that again. If you take a contribution based contract you are paying a publisher to own your work.
Some, including this publisher, say that the contribution based contract is the way of the future in the publishing industry. The sad truth is that they might be right. But until then–and in fact, if we’re ever to avoid that–writers need to stand their ground. It was the hardest thing in the world sending that decline e-mail, but because I believe in my work, I refuse to be taken advantage of, and you should, too.
This is a real challenge. A lot of freelance gigs out there are paying between $.01 and $.03 per word, which comes out to $10-$30 for a 1,000-word post. (For context, this post is 976 words, and a chunk of those aren’t even mine.) If I stand my ground and refuse a job like that, I’m not getting any experience, which hinders me from getting more work and higher paying work. It’s the writing world’s equivalent of unpaid intern syndrome.
When I worked in human resources, I refused to hire unpaid interns on my watch unless they were truly learning and not performing client work. I resolve to do the same for myself as I continue on this writing journey. I’ll negotiate a rate, but I won’t work for free, and I definitely won’t pay someone else to work for them.
The contribution based contract is an insulting fail-safe at best and a scam at worst. Perhaps a little bit of both. Writers should have more respect for themselves and the hard work they put into their craft. If you’re dying to get your book in print, self-publish. But please, for the love of all things that matter, don’t take a contribution based contract. You do yourself–and if I’m honest, the rest of us–a serious disservice.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be at the bar spending my “contribution” money on Bulleit Manhattans and cheese plates. If I’m going to sink, I’m going to sink with class.