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Contributor Copies, Small Presses, and Financial Reimbursement for Creative Writing

AUTHOR’S NOTE: For the uninitiated, a contributor copy is a free or reduced price volume provided to an author whose work appears in that volume. If you’ve just opened your Writer’s Market, those italicized cc‘s next to the various listings refer to contributor copies that a given publication provides to an author they published.

My anthology, Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland, has done well enough that ICP may turn a small profit off the book–a profit that, knowing Steve, will likely go directly back into supporting the business–and I have had the pleasant opportunity to meet several of our nearly 70 contributing writers and hear about how getting published in Prairie Gold has inspired them to write more, feel more confident about themselves as professional writers, start looking for an agent, and other benefits. Writers helped, readers reached, Midwest regional literature supported, and an independent book publisher gets a modest boost as it continues to churn out art produced by people who don’t necessarily have an agent or have all sorts of talent but no one willing to take a chance on publishing their manuscript. The only real souring of my pride and Prairie Gold involved two complaints by accepted writers about the lack of a free contributor copy (after acceptance and publication) and both writers calling into question Ice Cube Press’s integrity as a book publisher.

To provide some background, as my editing team, Ice Cube Press’s CEO Steve Semken, and myself ushered Prairie Gold through the final phases of editing and layout for the anthology, Steve and I yet discussed for the umpteenth how Ice Cube Press would compensate anthology contributors for publishing and selling their work: a 40% “contributor discount” on all copies contributors bought, without limit, and until Ice Cube Press ceased existing or could no longer print the book for whatever reason. This strategy for admittedly fairly meager compensation arose from three fundamental facts-of-life in small press independent publishing:

  1. Independent press books make very little money, especially when the books are anthologies.
  2. With very little capital to spare, independent presses must be more cautious about how that money is spread across its publications, especially with semi-experimental publications like Prairie Gold.
  3. One or two wrong investments could spell the end of the press, depending on its size, staff, and cost of operations.

Because ICP, like other independent publishers, is willing (hell, practically expected) to take chances on first time authors notwithstanding the lack of cash flow, Steve accepted my proposal to publish the anthology despite the very real probability–and as I found out later, expectation–that he would lose money on the project. When reading Steve’s published work, it’s fairly clear why he made that decision regardless of the financial consequences: the noble and underrated goal of art over economy that most small independent presses keep as their central philosophy.

Of course, this structure of compensation in the form of contributor discounts over contributor copies lessened ICP’s fiscal risk, but we editors also offered not to request any pay or royalties or contributor copies ourselves. Perhaps that deal sounds like we undersold ourselves–and Steve did offer to pay us something–but our objective for Prairie Gold was to print as much new work by as many authors as possible, e.g. If the first print publication tends to loom as the first big step and, perhaps, the greatest challenge for most writers, then Prairie Gold would remove that obstacle, build bios and CV’s, and translate into self-confidence and increased productivity by as many talented writers as we could find.

This project represented my service for supporting the culture of literacy, and as a result, we instituted our contributor discount compensation system ever since Xavier and I had begun the first call for submissions back in mid April 2013. That system would allow for a larger book, more copies in the first publication run, and, as a happy consequence, a more significant beneficial impact for writers and Midwestern literature without risking serious damage to ICP and the highly necessary independent publishing industry with which ICP holds respected membership.

Of course I believe that writers ought to receive fair compensation for their work; arguing anything else amounts to little more than a callous and ignorant view of the value of creative writing and the challenges fundamental to the professional creative process. Regardless of my personal feelings or the rightful expectations of many authors, most independent presses struggle to pay authors of monographs, let alone nearly 70 contributors to a print anthology.

According to Professor Dana Beth Weinberg’s incredibly fascinating article, “The Self Publishing Debate: A Social Scientist Separates Fact from Fiction,” most aspiring professional writers and self-published authors make between $0 and $5,000 annually on their writing. “The overall pattern of findings is consistent with other studies that show that few books or few authors or even few artists of any type for that matter actually “make it” and are successful (however one defines the term),” Weinberg observes and further concludes, “The new lesson from this study is that the chances of having a financially viable writing career may be best for hybrid authors and traditionally published authors.” While this trend may appear highly discouraging on its surface, Weinberg’s data, in fact, demonstrates the importance of small, independent publishers and their necessity for bridging the gap between self-publishing and traditional publishing with the “Big Five” publishers, Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster.

“The chances of having a financially viable writing career may be best for hybrid authors and traditionally published authors.” – Professor Dana Beth Weinberg, Queens College – CUNY

For writers beginning their professional career, independent publishers provide the inaugural step of providing the first print or print and digital publication. The subsequent book tour, signings, and panels that the independent publisher arranges for the first-time authors lubricates the process for beginning authors to build their creative profile, gain exposure in the publishing industry, and network with other publishers, agents, and the like. In essence first publications or anthologized publications by independent presses work more like unpaid or paid internships; the compensation is intrinsic to the experience and networking opportunities, and the royalties or salary are much smaller or nonexistent. But when so many creative writers aspire to make a profession of their passion, the opportunities to learn and meet individuals within the publishing industry absolutely pay dividends in the future. As a result, authors may receive less fiscal compensation, but the internship reminiscent structure places less responsibility on beginning authors; they can make mistakes as they learn–mistakes that are likely to induce a cost to their publisher and not the author–as long as the authors demonstrate excellent work-ethic and tact in their new dealings.

Attaining the first print publication contains little fiscal reward, but it accomplishes the necessary first step in the professionalization process: literary agents want proven (e.g. published) authors for larger presses, and the biggest presses want authors who have shown success at mid-sized publishers. As invigorating and inspiring as J.K. Rowling’s story may sound, she worked incessantly and for little compensation for many years before she penned the Harry Potter series and made billions of dollars with a Big 5 press. Most authors will not experience that same success and fall within the $0-$5,000 range noted by Prof. Wineberg above.

Even though contributor copies, royalties, and advances figure into the popular image of professional writing, those benefits only come with time, practice, and gradual success in writing craft. Independent publishers amount to the hard working professionals trying to transition the promising writer into a lucrative authorial career, but they will not always possess the means to accomplish that transition with the same perks as Random House promises. Like any other job, professional creative writing means starting at the bottom and working to the top.

If you’re a beginning writer or a semi-professional one, keep in mind that unlike the Big 5, independent publishers want to develop lasting relationships with their authors and, as such, want to work with you in order to deliver the biggest benefit possible for your work without going bankrupt themselves. If you absolutely require a contributor copy, royalties, or an advance on your salary, that’s fine, but do not expect an indie publisher to offer those benefits up front (or at all). Or at the very least, make sure that you know what benefits you can expect to receive before the book goes into print.