Sunday 8 September 2013

Where Do Your Words Go?

Going to share a little story with you about my aunt.

Earlier on this year she wrote an article on parenting. I won't say which article, so that I can talk about her experience openly, but it was a good article which was picked up by a renowned UK newspaper, The Telegraph. This is what makes the story so interesting, that it was a respected broadsheet.

It was my aunt's first major breakthrough in article writing, and she was understandably proud of her achievement. However, not having sold an article to a major syndicate before, she had no experience of how these things should be administered.

A few months later, she was somewhat surprised to receive a plaintive e-mail from a small magazine halfway around the world.

The magazine focused on parenting. They had seen her article, thought it as wonderful as The Telegraph had, but were unable to cough up the £250 license fee the paper were requesting in order to give them the nod to republish. They claimed they had offered £50, but were told £80, and even that was a little more than a struggling regional publication could afford. Was there any chance she might rewrite it for them?

The part that baffled my aunt was that she had not signed any contract with The Telegraph. Yet here they were, apparently selling on her work to a third party for more than they had paid her for it.

Cause for concern.

As a member of The Society of Authors, my first thought was to contact them to see what their advice was. They're pretty quick at replying to enquiries from members, which is one of the perks of being a member. My concern was that, when the paper paid her for the article, she had been under the impression that this was for the right to print it. Whereas she accepted that they had sole right to do so, she did not expect that they also had the right to profit by selling on her work, and was further worried that they hadn't even told her of the offer. The SoA responded thus:

In future, best advice is always to confirm what rights have been granted in a follow-up email or letter, so there is no risk of confusion at a later date.  But be that as it may, even if copyright remains with your aunt, if republication elsewhere is conditional on the Telegraph’s consent (which I think your aunt concedes to be the case), the Telegraph are entitled to make that consent conditional on charging a fee.  Rotten, but there you go.

On the other hand, whatever rights the Telegraph may or may not control in the article they published, there is nothing to prevent your aunt writing a different article on the same topic for someone else.  So she could respond to the [smaller] magazine that she would be willing to write them an entirely original piece in return for a fee of (whatever she sees fit, presumably a bit less than £250 but of course all ending up with her…).

Very useful information, worth remembering.

In my aunt's case, she did send that follow-up e-mail to clarify the terms. Here's what happened:

It seems that the commissioning editor for my article slipped up and forgot to send me a relevant letter which I should have agreed to.   Their terms are quite clear in this, but of course as I had not seen them I had not agreed.   Rather a pity really as if they had sold my article to the [smaller] magazine it looks as if I would have got 50%!

That sounds a lot fairer, though the point still stands: there was no contract, therefore no agreement.

The point of this post, for anyone considering selling articles, is to always get something in writing, and make sure you read it. Don't take things on trust and, if there isn't a contract, ask for one.

She did rewrite the article for the smaller magazine, who then turned around and told her they were unable to pay anything, even the £50 they had originally offered!

So, it's not only about getting your contracts in print, but also your commission agreements.

Don't undertake work before you see the money, or at least a signature guaranteeing it, unless the object of having the article published is purely to promote your reputation. Unfortunately, for many writers, that's about as good as it often gets.

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