Sunday, 24 October 2010

Something for Nothing

A couple of recent e-mails have got me thinking about the writing business, and how writers and their work are perceived.  One of them was probably quite innocent, the other turned out not to be, but the common factor was that both were trying to get something I'd created for nothing.  This is a topic I've posted on before, and there are definitely circumstances where I don't mind giving stories away, particularly ones that have already seen print, but I also like to think it should be the exception rather than the rule.  Anyway...

First came an e-mail from a student who said that she'd connected with my story Strive to be Happy, as published a couple of years back on Flash Fiction Online (and still available here), and wanted to reprint and discuss it at   I checked them out, decided that they were kosher, (and indeed, well worth a look if you're at all interested in writing flash fiction), and said yes - with a few conditions.  I wanted it to be clear where the story was originally published, that I still held copyright, and that it was being reprinted by permission.

Said student never got back to me. Of course there are a zillion reasons why that might have been, ranging from rudeness to alien abduction - but it did make we wonder if my answer, and my desire to keep copyright and reproduction rights over something I'd created, were a factor.

A couple of days after that, an individual by the name of Kenney Mencher got in touch out of the blue to invite me to take part in a contest: write a flash story based on a portrait of his and win an original sketch.  The portrait was quite good, the sketch was pretty sucky, and all in all I thought he had a bit of a nerve.  But the concept intrigued me, so I started putting something together, and the story - as stories will - sucked me in more and more.

I was already wondering if I really felt like giving it away for the chance of winning a picture I didn't particular like when I had another look at Mr Mencher's blog and realised, belatedly, what he was up to.  To briefly summarise the paragraphs of legalise gibberish under the "Disclaimer for Flash Fiction Contest" section, I would - just by posting my story - be giving up all rights whatsoever over my work and also, bewilderingly, my contact details, not only to Mencher but to anyone else he liked the look of.  He could republish my story under his own name, or rewrite and then publish it under his name, and I'd have no legal comeback.  For that matter, he could sell my contact details to the Mafia if he felt like it.

Like I say, there's a fair bit of legalise going on.

Having dug further, it's pretty clear what Mencher is up to.  He's got a painting exhibition planned, wants some text to accompany it, and has no qualms whatsoever about screwing over his fellow artists to get it on the cheap (or rather, effectively, on the free).  Of course, the way he's going about it means that he can use not only the "winning" entry but the others as well, without the hassle of crediting any of the respective authors.  Way less bother than doing the whole thing scrupulously, right?  He has, by the way, another forty or so of these "competitions" planned - and somehow, I don't think I'll be entering those, either.

Well ... my story was mostly done by the time I realised all this, and I'm quite pleased with it as a first draft.  I plan to finish it and then sit on it, with a view to rewriting it somewhere down the line, so the effort shouldn't be wasted.  As for the rest, I guess I'll be a little more wary in future when people contact me out of the blue.  It's easy to get blindsided by someone showing interest in your work - but if that interest means trying to get rights over it for free then it's really not such a great compliment, is it?


  1. I'm sorry I offended you by offering to trade a sketch for a literary sketch.

    The spirit of what's posted on my blog very clearly expresses that I would give away catalogs at my show to the audience attending and to the authors who won the drawings. The text also states that I would credit the authors and the follow up post by author Michael Gray shows defends me on this point. I would never take credit for someone else's work.

    When I wrote to you asking for a suggestion of a better contract or wording you would be comfortable with you never got back to me. I'd like to extend that invitation to you again.

  2. Prof Mencher,

    I'm sorry in turn that you feel I've misrepresented what you're trying to do. I'm perfectly willing to concede that your intentions may be honest, and if they are then I wish you every success. Further, I can see in retrospect that it would have been fairer to give you the benefit of the doubt and simply contact you with my concerns, and that there are parts of my post that were unnecessarily vitriolic. I did in fact post in response to your comment saying some of this, but I can see that it hasn't appeared on your blog, so I can only assume I somehow failed to save it.

    All of that said, I still feel that - based on the information available to me, which obviously couldn't include your intentions or the information about your character that Mr Gray alludes to - what I've said above is basically fair. My personal belief remains that this competition, in its current form, is disadvantageous to the majority of writers who enter.

    It simply isn't the case that you offered to trade your sketch for a short story. In fact, you invited me to enter a competition, in an e-mail titled "Flash Fiction Challenge." According to the original terms of the competition, there would only have been one winner, though I realise this has subsequently changed. However, everyone who entered would - according to the guidelines you published - grant all rights over their work to you simply by entering. To quote, "Entries become sole property of Kenney Mencher and Kenney Mencher has the right to publish, reprint and or sell the entry." Entrants would also relinquish a number of subsidiary rights relating to their privacy, contact information, etc, far in excess of what any publisher would normally ask for. Even if this weren't the case, most publishers consider work that has appeared on a blog or website as having been published, and will either not consider it or pay much lower reprint rates.

    Also, while it's true that you explain the background behind the competition clearly on your website, there was no explicit mention of the art catalogue in either your e-mail or the specific post that it directed to.

    Finally, I didn't receive your e-mail asking for advice on amended guidelines, but since you ask now, I'm glad to offer it. If you want the stories to be previously unpublished at the point that you publish them you'll need first print rights, and you should establish an exclusivity period that suits your requirements - six months to a year is standard. If the catalogue is likely to be reprinted then you should specify non-exclusive rights thereafter. If you're not bothered about the stories appearing elsewhere in the meantime then you should simply ask for non-exclusive print rights for, say a year. You could limit the requirement further by asking for only US print rights or even one-time rights if the catalogue isn't likely to be reprinted.
    Electronic rights are trickier, since you're effectively publishing the stories by hosting them on your blog. Again, you could ask for non-exclusive electronic rights, or specify a short exclusivity period. You'll probably also want a statement to the effect that you can make minor changes to correct spelling mistakes, etc, without consultation, and if you want to publish entrants' e-mail addresses then that should be made clear too. Bios and personal photographs aren't, to my knowledge, covered by copyright, though you might want to mention that you'll require them from successful entrants.

    All of that said, my personal feeling is that the only way this wouldn't be injurious to the writers involved is if they could submit to you without posting their stories online. So long as that stipulation remains, you're still potentially asking writers to give up their work without any hope of recompense.



  3. Thanks Dave! I will rewrite the guidelines to include your suggestions.