The FWG in 2018

It’s been a while since there’s been a blog post here, and we don’t “peel back the curtain” too much. So let’s pull up a chair and chat.

In mid-2017, the FWG presidency passed from Watts Martin (“Chipotle”) to Madison Scott-Clary (“Makyo”) without an election, as Makyo ran unopposed. Watts became the FWG’s first vice-president, and for somewhat arcane technical reasons, Renee Carter Hall (“Poetigress”) became the FWG’s first treasurer.

A few months later, though, Makyo resigned for personal reasons, and Chipotle—that’s me!—took over the office of president again in late September.

So. Let’s talk about where the FWG is, and what we’d like to do in 2018.

Our growth has slowed recently, but we have over 150 members, and the furry publishing scene has changed dramatically in the last couple of years:

  • We have more publishers than ever! Along with stalwarts Sofawolf, Rabbit Valley, and FurPlanet, we have Thurston Howl Publications, Weasel Press, Goal Publications, and more.
  • FurPlanet’s Argyll imprint is making inroads with mainstream SF readers, launching novels The Tower and the Fox and Kismet beyond the furry con circuit.
  • The Coyotl Awards have been recognized outside furry fandom. Lawrence Schoen’s Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, a Nebula nominee and Coyotl winner from Tor (the largest genre publisher in the world), mentions the Coyotl win in the paperback release.
  • After a long drought, we’re starting to see more periodical short story markets, rather than just anthologies.

The VP, according to the FWG bylaws, doesn’t do a whole lot, and the President probably does a little too much. Makyo didn’t get to update the blog with the traditional monthly posts—the Book of the Month and the member news updates—and I haven’t done it since myself. There are a few reasons for that.

First, let me be honest: I wasn’t prepared to step back into the president’s role, and I’ve been playing catch-up for months. I’m not proud of that, but I’m working to fix it.

Now, though, let me be candid. Those monthly member news posts are a lot of work for, according to the analytics, very little engagement. The number of people who’ve asked about why we haven’t done one since July is zero. So at this point, I’m not inclined to resume them, and will instead focus on keeping the web site market listings up to date.

We do need to get back to doing Book of the Month posts, and those will resume later this month. We’re also scheduling a guest post, and I’d like to start getting more of those, as well as producing the occasional focused article like the contract post from 2016. (By the way, if you’re one of the—two, I think—people who send in an unused guest post, we’ll finally be in touch.)

Beyond that, I’d like to kick off a couple other long-delayed initiatives.

I’ll talk about others later, but here’s the big one: we need to find a way to allow self-published authors into the FWG. I recognize that the Guild is loosely modeled on the SFWA (SF & Fantasy Writers of America), and the FWG’s original intent was to push a notion of professionalism in furry writing. But is someone who had two stories accepted by nonpaying markets more “professional” than an indie author selling thousands of copies? Right now, our rules say yes.

The SFWA accepts self-published authors now (in no small part due to the work of FWG member—and former SFWA VP—M.C.A. Hogarth), using revenue-based qualification: your self-published title must make a minimum of $3000 in one 12-month period, the same amount as it would need to have earned in royalties from a traditional publisher. We could just follow that lead with a smaller amount (say, $250 or $300)—that’s essentially how our present-day qualifications came about. But is that the right approach?

This rubs against some underlying questions about just what the Guild should do. The SFWA came into existence to advocate for writers with—and when necessary, against—publishers. Realistically, even if we wanted to, we’re not in a position to do that. But if we’re not a writers’ union, are we aspiring to be one? And what are we now? “The FWG is elitist” is a common knock from non-members; are we? Or do we just have to accept that any organization with membership qualifications, rather than being open to all, will be seen as “elitist” by some?

If you’re reading this (especially if you’ve gotten this far), you’re interested in this topic–so please join us on the FWG Forum or the FWG Slack Workspace, where most of the discussion happens. (If you’re not familiar with Slack, it’s a private chat system; it’s not like signing up for a new social network like Twitter or Facebook, but more like signing into a private IRC server.)

Let’s talk about publishing: contracts

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.