Earlier today, Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses alerted me to the following post on John Scalzi’s blog: Dear The Toast and The Butter, Please Fix Your Rights Grab. As you may know, last month, one of my essays appeared on The Toast. I was thrilled to have it accepted and published there, but I refused to sign their contract, which as Scalzi and the folks at Writers Beware note requests not just all rights but moral rights as well. For me, this refusal was a gut instinct. My essay is an incredibly personal one, and the stories I tell in it have implications that affect many others in my family besides myself. There is absolutely no way in hell I would sell all rights to it to anyone, no matter how much money they offered me.
As a fiction writer, I’ve done a lot of research into what rights publications typically acquire and the language of contracts, so when I got The Toast’s contract and read it, I knew that the language was terrible for writers. In fact, it seemed like such an overreach to me that I asked a handful of friends about it before I sent a response. I am lucky enough to have several friends who are either lawyers or who know a lot about law, and they all advised me that the contract was a bad deal for me. Basically, if I had signed it, The Toast could do whatever they wanted with my work, from now until infinity. And if I, say, suddenly became a screenwriter and developed a movie based on my essay, they could sue me for it.
I will say that although he was not very prompt in answering my emails, Nick Pavich was never as dismissive and rude as the Tweet quoted by Scalzi makes him seem. If he had been – despite my respect for Nicole Cliffe and Mallory Ortberg and their work, and how lovely Nicole was to correspond with – I would not have published with them. But he also wasn’t receptive to my suggested, perfectly reasonable amendments to the contract, which would have brought it more in line with the standard first rights clauses I’ve seen from so many lit mags. He instead offered me the option of asking for my rights back if I needed them at any point in the future. For obvious reasons, I declined.
So in the end, I did not accept their $50 payment because I wanted to retain all of my rights; instead I “donated” (Nick’s word) the essay to the site so that they could post it but I continue to own it. For me, that was the best decision. Although I work as a writer and editor, none of the other places where I was considering submitting this particular piece would have paid me anyway, and I knew that it would get a lot of exposure on The Toast and that the comments section would remain respectful. Also, the quality of the work on The Toast is consistently high, so I knew I would be proud to have my words appear alongside the other content. But I do wonder how many authors have just signed away their efforts and their words without even noticing, barely reading the contract, just happy to have an audience, or even believing that this is the way it works. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t, and I hope that the public call-out of this policy encourages a change.
ETA: The Toast and The Butter have already responded and promised a change in their contracts. Going forward, they will only acquire First North American rights and online serial rights, and will revert rights in case of a book deal. From their post, it sounds like they did follow through in at least several cases with what Nick offered me in terms of reverting rights, which is nice to know. I stand by my decision, however, as publishers and editors can change, so even if the original person’s intent was to revert your rights, you can still get screwed. I’m glad their new contract will have that covered.