March 31st, 2010 / 4:35 pm
Behind the Scenes

The Cost of Things

At The Coachella Review, Steve Almond shares a lively exchange with an editor who received a $50,000 advance asking him to write for free, for good will—an entry for the book The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything.

When Almond asks the editor in question, Mark Reiter, about the pay, the editor states:

You’re right, it is fun. Alas, there’s no money in it for contributors. Our fact-checker Matt is the only one making a net profit on this project.  The best we can do is a plug for your book and promising you the (admittedly disputable) pleasure you get in putting your life’s passion to good use for a new cohort of readers.

Almond then asks the very reasonable question about who exactly is being paid for the project and Reiter states:

Yes, Richard Sandomir and I are sharing an advance of $50,000. That’s $25,000 each. Take away the 15% agency commission, it’s down to $21,250 each. I’m paying my assistant Emily Sklar an extra $5000 out of my pocket to handle the logistics (tracking down folks like you, for example). We’re delivering to Bloomsbury 100 brackets. We can’t pay some people and not others, but if we did offer payment-less than $500 would be pointless-to everyone, the math says we’d be in the red. Royalties in excess of the advance (should they materialize) go to Richard and me. That’s the economics of this project.

Almond counters with a reasonable suggestion for how everyone can walk away happy:

The only compromise I can live with is to ask that you pay me a small fee for “first-serial rights” to my bracket, which you’re then free to publish elsewhere. Or agree to pay me a tiny percentage of the royalties. This has no bearing on your other contributors. It would be an agreement written into my contract.

Of course that’s not amenable for Reiter who continues to insist that Almond should be perfectly happy to write for free while Reiter and his co-editor make thousands of dollars:

I’m not gonna argue with you, and this is my last attempt to get you to change your mind. But you’d be better off sticking to Mind One, and jettisoning Mind Two. It’s not greed on our part; it’s just common sense and economics. We can’t pay you and not pay others; if not paying you is morally dubious, what’s paying you and no one else? Also, would $100 or $200 really put your mind at ease or, frankly, make a difference? The weird thing is, you’re the only one out of about 100 people we’ve contacted who’s made an issue out of this. Not the first to ask about money, but the first to make an issue out of it. I suspect people play along with us because they’re of Mind One, and as for Mind Two, they think the payoff will be in good karma. Honestly, if this thing somehow miraculously takes off and starts spitting out royalties, Sandomir and I would certainly be sending out little checks to everyone. It’s the right thing to do, but we aren’t making a contractual promise out of it. We’re not even issuing contracts.

There are so many frustrating, troubling things about the exchange but the primary and most flagrant offense is the notion that writers shouldn’t be compensated, even with a token amount.

People are often hesitant to talk about money. One of the things I like most about science fiction writer John Scalzi is his openness about the financial aspects of his writing career. For example, in 2007, he made $164,000 from writing. You can find some great posts from Scalzi about writing and money here and here and here and here. Scalzi’s philosophy, and one I share, seems pretty pragmatic–writers should get paid but sometimes they don’t get paid and that’s okay because under the right circumstances writers can benefit greatly from writing for free.

I happen to know a little about anthologies and the compensation of writers. I recently finished editing my first anthology of genre fiction. It will be out in May or June. I received an advance of $1500 against (if memory serves me correctly) 7% royalties. Out of that $1500 I have to pay all twenty-two of my contributors who also signed contracts. [As an aside why is it that so few small presses and magazines use contracts?] I offered contributors a one time fee of $50 which took $1100 of my advance. The rest will go to paying TAXES, I’m sure. I’m practically losing money on the deal but that’s okay–the royalties, if there are any, will go to me and the writers are being compensated, however token the payment. If this book does well I can perhaps negotiate a better deal for the next book and make more money for myself. Given that most editors, particularly in genre fiction pay their contributors, I do not share this information because I’m doing something special but rather to demonstrate that paying contributors is par for the course no matter the size of the advance. Reiter’s assertion that he’s not in a position to offer even a token payment is pretty insane. Token payments are lovely and a fine example of the thought counting. I receive $50-$100 for each genre story I publish and over the course of the year, it really starts to add up. The notion Reiter and other editors and publishers espouse that writers wouldn’t appreciate $100 or $200 is a convenient fantasy to keep money out of writers’ pockets. It’s kind of outrageous.

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