New small presses explicitly targeting the furry market have been springing up over the last few years, while some of our older presses have been producing more titles. Meanwhile, the number of furry authors has grown steadily. Submission calls that might have received only a couple dozen submissions even three years ago receive three or four times that in mid-2016.
As fantastic as this growth is, the furry publishing scene is still tiny. Not only do writers know each other, writers tend to know publishers and vice-versa. For the most part, we’re all friends with one another, and we’re all figuring out this “creating a market” thing as we go. As far as I know, all the editors and publishers in furrydom became editors and publishers by fiat; some of us might have worked at college presses, but I’m not aware of anyone who worked for a major fiction publishing house or periodical, even as a slush reader. A lot of business gets conducted in…let’s call it a relaxed fashion.
As it turns out, “handshake contracts” are surprisingly common in the literary small press world, particularly poetry journals that pay in contributors’ copies rather than money, to the point where there’s a de facto industry standard for it. But when money changes paws, it’s important for both parties to nail down exactly what they expect of one another.
So let’s talk about contracts. What a publishing contract should do is fairly straightforward:
- Define the rights the author grants the publisher. In most cases, these are first publication rights—the story hasn’t been published anywhere else, including archive sites like Fur Affinity—with limited exclusivity: after an amount of time given in the contract passes, the author can publish the story somewhere else that accepts reprints. A six-month period of exclusivity is typical. (Note that magazines buy serial rights, but books and anthologies buy rights to a geographical region: North American rights, World rights, etc. You’re free to sell the book again to other publishers outside that geographical region; this is why novels often have different publishers in the US and Europe.)
- Define the amount the publisher is paying for those rights, how they’re paying it (check, Paypal, doubloons, etc.), and when they’re paying it. If you’re being paid by the word, the total amount you’re being paid should be specified here. Some contracts specify payment on acceptance; many specify it on publication. In either case, the contract should give a window (“within 30 days of publication”).
- Cover appropriate electronic and subsidiary rights. If the contract allows the publisher to archive your work indefinitely on a web site, do you have the right to withdraw it after a certain length of time? If this is a novel, are you granting the publisher rights to produce the ebook? (Some authors, like Kyell Gold, self-publish their ebooks.) What about any other subsidiary rights, like audiobooks?
- Give the publisher a deadline, so they can’t sit on the work indefinitely (“if the publisher fails to produce Great Furry Stories within one year of the execution date of this contract, rights revert back to the author”).
- Guarantee approval over content editing changes. The publisher should be able to fix spelling errors without running them by you, but not change your grizzled Vietnam vet protagonist to a twelve-year-old kid.
- In furry, it’s not unheard of for authors to end up paying for art out of their own pocket and have the publisher repay them. If you do this, get the reimbursement amount of the art in the contract, too, even if it has to be a single-paragraph addendum.
What a publishing contract shouldn’t do is also straightforward: it shouldn’t take any more rights than necessary, and it shouldn’t leave anything significant undefined. If the answer to “when do I get paid” or “when can I sell reprint rights to this story or put it up for my fans on FA” isn’t answered by the contract, there’s a problem. And it shouldn’t ask you to assign exclusive rights in perpetuity. (Carefully consider assigning even non-exclusive rights in perpetuity, especially for a flat rate.)
The SFWA Model Magazine Contract runs 8 pages, but there’s extensive annotation explaining each clause—and a few somewhat unusual clauses. In practice, most publishing contracts, at least for magazines and anthologies, don’t need to run more than a couple pages.
If you’re concerned about a clause in a contract, ask. If you’d like a clause changed, bring it up with your publisher and explain why. Contracts are negotiations, not “take it or leave it” propositions. And if a publisher insists on a clause you’re worried about, bring it up with the Guild. We may not be able to negotiate on your behalf, but we can let other members know about potential issues.
And one more thing. Contracts should be signed before work starts. Before the publisher sends the author any money, before the publisher starts going back and forth with the author on editorial changes, and for the love of Judy Hopps, before the publication goes on sale. If your story is a month away from publication and you haven’t seen a contract, ask the publisher. Better yet, ask when it’s two months away.
I suspect the advice in this column may make some publishers tear their fur out, and I’m sorry. But I’ve been sent contracts when—or even after—books and magazines went on sale. Sometimes I’ve never received a contract. As far as I can tell, my experience isn’t unusual. The more the furry publishing scene grows, the greater chance being lackadaisical has of causing serious problems for publishers, writers, or both.
Because we are all friends with one another, this subject can be hard to talk about. But getting contracts right helps everyone, publishers and writers alike.
I’ll talk about other considerations for publishing in other articles, including marketing, production and editorial. These are good for writers to know—and it’s good for writers if publishers know them, too.