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...and the Cat Gnawed Off its Tail

From a writer’s perspective, everything I’ve experienced in the last two years says that writing does not generate a living income. I write short stories in the neighbourhood of 10,000 words and they vary in subject or genre. I send them out into the world seeking acceptance and in so doing have discovered two guidelines within the industry that are counter-productive for writers.

There are three words that stand out when reading the guidelines to determine where to send a story – no simultaneous submissions, inevitably followed by not responsible for unsolicited manuscripts. Responds in 3-4 months. Many times there is no response, and when there is, the odds are there will be several rejections before acceptance (hopefully). In the meantime, the writer is prohibited from soliciting another market while those who have the story contemplate its fate.

Rejection is a companion of the writer. Not every story will find a home, but for those writers that do hope, and that takes in everyone, how many rejections can we expect before the story is either accepted or eventually discarded by the writer? It varies, but by complying with the no simultaneous submissions guideline, I figure not in how many letters but in how many years.

No one is denying anyone the opportunity to earn an income, but what is being denied is the freedom to make it in a more competitive environment. We are being held down by not being allowed to explore a wider audience of publications in a shorter period. We are prevented from realizing our stories real net worth. We are compelled to accept the only offer on the table, afraid to jeopardize what we already have – which may be fair, but have no way of knowing.

Another issue is first North American rights. Almost everyone demands them. Even an obscure so-called publication in some small community demands it. Payment: two copies of a mimeo, stapled, ugly covered representation of a magazine. Many universities stipulate it. Payment: depended on resources. Slick glossies stipulate it. Payment: after publication a year away. I generalize of course. Not all are as I described, but the majority of publications fall into this category. Regrettably, almost all writers complain silently while still complying, fearing possible retaliation, but from whom?

It seems logical from a writer’s standpoint, that whenever any publication stipulates first North American rights that should only be when fair compensation is offered, not copies or bragging rights that the story was published. They must realize they are denying the writer his due by stipulating that which takes rather than gives to the writer – an income. And what constitutes a publication – the image or the run? Is a publication of 600 copies throughout North America justly recognized as an infringement on first rights? To some, it does. There is no uniformity throughout the industry on this matter, no conformity – just confusion and the writer’s loss.

Over the past two years, I have sold stories, had stories published for copies, given stories away, had a book published where I received royalties and had another published where I’m still trying to get royalties. I think by now I have a comprehensive assessment of the industry.

I hear the word tradition often and I don’t understand. Tradition is a convention established by constant practice. Tradition in the printing/publishing industry ceased with the death of the linotype machine and what we have now is evolution – a changing of ways. I still remember my contemporaries telling me in the seventies when I got my first computer, that it was a toy. Very little of that era remains.

Consider an old-fashioned milk bottle. The cream inevitably rises to the top, but if the container is shaken, there is that moment when the milk ascends and the cream mingles, making for a richer, tastier drink. What is needed is that the bottle should be shaken and the contents examined more closely to see if maybe they have soured because they stood still too long and weren’t properly utilized.

And yes, I was a linotype operator, and change has not hurt our industry. It has opened doors never known to exist, but upon opening some of those doors, the cobwebs still cling.

 

As appeared in Canadian Writer’s Journal: Summer 2000