A few weeks ago a writer friend suggested that I check out one of her favorite publications. On the surface it looked promising. The journal presented itself as a socially conscious, humanitarian outfit. However, the writers’ guidelines told a different story.
Red Flag #1: The journal didn’t pay, and it tried to justify that with the old “your byline is payment” chestnut.
Red Flag #2: The guidelines indicated that just by submitting work, writers were granting the journal “rights in perpetuity.” This publication was basically saying, “We make no promises about publishing your work, and we won’t pay you for it. However, we’ll be happy to permanently take it off your hands.” My heart sank as I explored the site, and saw that numerous young and talented writers had bought into the scam, and permanently given away their essays.
This sort of rights grab has long been a tactic of writing and photo contests, but it’s disturbing that it’s showing up in regular submission processes for mainstream magazines. There isn’t any legitimate reason a publication needs to do this. It’s just a way for them to exploit writers, and get a lot of free material to use. If the publication hasn’t accepted the work, hasn’t offered a contract, and hasn’t paid the writer, it shouldn’t have any claim of ownership or control over a submitted piece.
And, yes, it’s a big deal when publications pull this stunt. Why?
First of all, it perpetuates a dangerous status quo. Publications need content to survive, which means that they need writers. However, if they have access to a steady supply of free work that they completely control, they’re never going to feel the need to pay for articles, or treat their writers fairly. What would happen if every writer out there flatly refused to deal with publications that claim immediate ownership of submitted work? Things would have to change, wouldn’t they?
Second: The writer loses the ability to make money from her work. Why do these publications take all rights on submission? They know there’s potential profit to be had, and they want it. Compelling articles in online magazines can generate thousands or even millions of page views, which can bring in substantial revenue. Writing can also be repackaged and marketed in different media. That magazine can even turn around and resell the writers’ work to other publications!
When writers release their rights on submission, they never see a penny of the money their articles earn in any format. In addition, since the publication controls all rights, writers can be legally barred from ever reselling their own work, publishing it in a book, or even posting it on their own website.
And when it comes down to it, writers really don’t need publications that want to take their rights on submission. Those pubs aren’t the only ones out there. There are plenty of magazines, websites and newspapers that have the integrity to compensate their writers fairly, and negotiate reasonable contract terms.
What if a writer doesn’t want to sell his work to any other publication? There are still viable options that don’t involve giving it away. It’s always possible for an author to self-publish a book, print and sell a Îzine, or start a blog that earns income from ad revenue. In this day and age, creative and enterprising authors have many tools, both online and off, to print, sell and promote their own work. That’s far preferable to giving it away free and clear, and allowing someone else to profit from it.
Finally: Writers are professionals. They know that writing, researching, fact checking and editing are work. They have the right to be paid fairly, just as professionals in any other field are compensated. They have the right to fair contract terms. Publications that take all rights on submission, and don’t pay, are offering writers a rotten deal. That’s really the bottom line.
Denise Reich is an Italian-born, NYC-raised freelance writer and world traveler. Her work has appeared in publications in the USA, Canada, Bermuda, South Africa and elsewhere. Denise is a regular contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books. She’s currently finishing up two books, a novel and a non-fiction memoir. Visit her online at www.freewebs/denisenox.