Monday, February 23, 2015

Chicken Ranch report no. 51: Woe, despair and agony on me

As a writer, particularly a writer who has worked to place his manuscript on the history of the Chicken Ranch with a publisher for the last few years to varying degrees of frustration, sending the following email is not the way one wants to start off Monday morning:

It is with deep regret that I must withdraw my manuscript from XXXXXXXXX's consideration.
There's a lesson here, boys and girls. That lesson is "Academic publishers are not the same as commercial publishers." I knew this, of course. When I published Voices of Vision with the University of Nebraska Press back in 2005, I learned this first hand. Their contracts are total rights grabs. This didn't bother me so much, as I knew Voices of Vision had a limited audience and had zero value for movie/dramatic and other such subsidiary rights. Even so, I was able to negotiate a couple of clauses into the contract in my favor. With my Chicken Ranch book? Not so much.

The current publisher I had been in negotiations with simply wouldn't negotiate anything in their contract. After much back-and-forth they relented and allowed me to keep dramatic rights to myself, but that was it. They would not budge on anything else, including the ultimate deal-breaker, out-of-print reversion. They refused to define out-of-print in the contract, and refused to define when/if the rights to my book reverted to me. Since they would be publishing an ebook version, for all practical purposes they would own my book forever. Once an ebook file is created, it takes no additional investment to keep it "in print" as it were. If another publisher came up to me in the future and said, "We see there have been no hard copy editions of your book available for more than five years. We'd like to come out with a special 50th anniversary edition in 2023, and pay you X amount to do so," I would have to tell them no, because publisher X held those rights. I could ask publisher X to print a 50th anniversary edition, and they could say "No." I would have no recourse. The same thing could happen with my heirs in 2073 for the 100th anniversary. They would own it forever, as long as that ebook format was available.

Now, don't get me wrong. They were professional in their interactions with me, even if they were taken aback by my attempts to negotiate. This is their business model, and it works because the majority of their authors are tenure-track university faculty who do not care about subsidiary rights, rights reversions or even income. They need the publication credit, period. Once that book is in print, they've moved on to their next project. Publish or perish. Heck, most scholarly journals charge to run a research article, and claim all copyright in the work on top of that. Which is why you've never seen a piece by yours truly in any academic journal--I started several, then realized I'd be giving away the farm once I read their submission guidelines. In the immortal words of James D. Macdonald, "Money flows to the writer."

So, once again I pick myself up, dust myself off, and get back up on that horse. There's a publisher out there for this book, but finding said publisher is getting old.

Still, better no contract than a bad contract. And you can take that to the bank.

Now Playing: Stan Getz Quartets
Chicken Ranch Central


  1. You did the right thing. I think truly reputable publishers don't treat authors this way. By the way, John Scalzi, on his blog WHATEVER addressed this last year. Worth looking at.

  2. Sorry to hear of the setback, Jayme, but you absolutely made the right choice. Don't give up... you'll find the right home for it!