First Do No Harm

I’ve co-authored five licensing agreements in the past two and a half years, including the two standard agreements which all Chinese Whisperings and Literary Mix Tapes agreements are built upon. I’ve also acted as a sounding board for one more and signed three as an author in my own right. The agreements we have in place at eP cover over 300,000 words, in 59 pieces of work, in five publications. And another 120,000 words and 143 pieces are licensed under gentlemen’s agreements for charity anthologies.

Every agreement is different – but at the crux of each, is a naming of publisher and author, a story and a set of dot points each party agrees on to bring a piece of work to publication. These dot points (or clauses) normally outline things such as the assigning of rights, the length of these rights, payment, the formats the work will be published in and details regarding the termination or renewal of the agreement. Agreements should also contain a glossary which clearly defines each term.

Yes – they’re relatively boring documents, many are near impossible to read (though Paul and I have worked hard to create licensing agreements in the plainest of English for eP). As an author, it is essential you read everything contained in any agreement sent to you and understand how this impacts you as an author and your work.

At eP we produce and distribute the agreements at the end of the anthology (we work a little different for single author projects negotiating the terms at the beginning but not actually asking the author to sign until the end.). This gives every author the opportunity to:

  • bring their work to final publishing state (where author and editor are both happy with the final product)
  • see their work as it will appear in print and
  • to read the entire anthology their piece will be a part of.

It’s all about transparency and ensuring when our authors sign on the dotted line, they do so with a smile on their face.

The interesting thing to note about our legal documents is we never call them contracts – they are agreements.

An agreement is a negotiated and usually legally enforceable understanding between two or more legally competent parties.

Although a binding contract can (and often does) result from an agreement, an agreement typically documents the give-and-take of a negotiated settlement and a contract specifies the minimum acceptable standard of performance.

Whenever we send out agreements, they are open for discussion. Moreover we actively encourage every author to ask questions of the agreement so they fully understand what they are legally binding themselves to when they sign. While most anthology authors sign with few queries, our single author agreements attract quite lively discussion around them – as the case should be. As I said, everyone should be wearing a smile when they affix their mark at the bottom.

So, why the sudden interest in sharing this.

Earlier on in the month I signed on the bottom of a licensing contract with several clauses which left a foul taste in my mouth. So why sign off on it… because it brings my time with this publisher and publication to a close. And thank God for that. Also because signing the contract removes the name I legally publish my work under from being associated with the publisher and publication… and well its give and take. I’m simply relieved the work will be unattributable to me.

The clause I took most offence to was this:

The Writers, Editors, Beta Readers and Publisher agree that they will not take any action that will harm the [work*].

It was a good thing I wasn’t sipping my tea when I read this. In essence this means the publisher believes there is a good possibility those involved will seek to harm the publication in question. To me, it is an admission from the publisher that a certain amount of ill will exists within the ranks.

In no agreement I have assisted in writing, nor any agreement I have ever signed, have I seen such a clause. Effectively this clause gags any associated writer, past or present, from commenting freely and honestly about their involvement with the publication, and by extension, any comment regarding the publisher who produces the publication. Of course you can comment, blog, tweet, generally talk unfettered if you want to say good things which promote the publication. Outside of that you have to shut up. By signing the agreement you are legally bound to do so.

My time on with this publication and publisher has been a roller coaster ride. I loved the initial creation process with my fellow writers and our editorial staff (including one hell of an amazing beta reader). We worked to the brief given to us and in my opinion, produced high quality work which met the guidelines.

The rot set in when it was taken to the next level of editorial invention.

I’m not precious about my writing. I’ve had the honour of working with two amazing editors on projects outside of eP in the last nine months – Russell B Farr (at Ticondergoa Publications) and Sasha Beattie (at Kayelle Press). For more than two years I’ve been working closely with a strong group of beta readers who regularly pull my work to pieces. I understand the editing/critiquing process is essential and I give myself over to it. My work is always better for it. To be precious about the editing of my own work would make me the worse kind of hypocrite.

What I am precious about is the process. As an editor and a publisher I adhere to the highest standards of practice. These principles are so important, Paul and I are in the process of formalising them into a protocol which will be named HITHER, to ensure all our associate editors conduct themselves at a comparable ethical standard.

At the very foundation of editing and publishing (from where I stand) there really is only one rule: the author and their story always come first. This is a difficult type rope to walk at time, when in your other hand, as you shuffle across the rope, you balance the aspects of the larger project (especially in the case of Chinese Whisperings anthologies).

At then end of the day, authors are the only true assets a publisher has – they are the ones who produce the stories you sell. Without them you have no business. Piss your authors off and they walk, taking not only their stories, and future stories, but their goodwill.

How do you put authors and their stories first? Four common sense guidelines:

  • transparency: authors are always able to easily see the edits and changes made to their work
  • partnerships: if authors are willing to meet you half way, so should you. You do this by encouraging authors to not just accept the changes you make to their work, but to also reject or modify any changes they feel are not in keeping with their work. Authors always have the right to say no. If you have created a project which inherently blocks this right – you’re working on the wrong type of project.
  • accessibility: everything always flows back to the author (in the case of eP this also includes the lion share of royalties). Authors should not have to hunt out the changes to their work to the point of exasperation.
  • continuity: if you recruit writers to perform a specific task, in a specific project, allow them to do that. Don’t change the goal posts, or the rules of engagement. The best thing you can do once you set it up, is step out of the way.

The unnamed publication I am talking about, at the higher end editing process, did none of this effectively. Edits and changes made were for all intents and purposes, invisible. There was no direct feed back from the editors regarding changes made. The common courtesy of having your edits emailed back to you never happened.

The impetus remained at all times with the author to seek out their work and try and discover what changes had been made (the platform on which the editing occurred did not allow for tracked changes). When reviewing the edits done on my work, I discovered whole sections of my work rewritten without my consent – and poorly. Months later I wrote to request my name be removed from these sections, stating I felt it was no longer representative of the original work turned in (original work given the okay by my editor!)

Other parts of my work were rejected outright because they ‘didn’t fit’ now. I understand in the bigger scheme of things, details need to be changed to fit in with the whole, but as I understood it, the work I produced with my fellow writers, did fit together, as the brief demanded. The best example of this: I had my final piece, congruent with the overarching premise of the story, rejected because it now didn’t fit. After four attempts at writing it ‘their’ way I gave up and admitted defeat.

When the work was set in its near to final state – we were given a list of where to find our work, but as the managing editor veered further and further away from the original concept, and sections of stories were taken out of their discrete narrative arcs and blended into other narratives (where they were never intended to be) it became increasingly difficult to locate sections of your work.

As for continuity well… it would be easiest to say, don’t get me started.

Throughout the final editing process, the feeling was, this is the way it is – like it or lump it. The Managing Editor’s word was final and any attempt to defend your work, or its rightful place was met with statements such as, “You’re obviously not cut out for this type of writing.”

If there is a second rule in editing and publishing, it is accepting your fallibility and the short comings of what you do. Never in a million years would I assume to tell an author involved in an eP projects that the fault lies with them – they’re obviously not cut out for it. The fault lies with me and perhaps my inability to articulate what I want. The fault lies with me because I haven’t checked my ego in at the door. Sometimes the juggling act between authors and business means not everyone is happy at the end and I’ve, at times, mismanaged the outcome. I’m willing to say I made a mistake though. I try my best and I ensure it is never personal, anything I say or write. I always try to find a way to bring a point of contention to place where both parties can be happy with the outcome.

Sometimes the fault lies inherently in the concept. Accepting your fallibility is recognising the short comings of your project as they occur and trouble shoot them to the best of your ability. It’s not about laying blame.

To minimise the chances of any project going off the rails, I ensure that:

  1. the idea or concept is simple, stays simple and consistent through the life of the project.
  2. an easy to follow set of guide lines are produced to safeguard the integrity or the concept/idea across multiple interpretations
  3. in addition to 1 & 2, the vision is malleable and has room for every author to pursue creative freedom.
  4. everyone is clear as to what the concept/idea is and their responsibilities within the project, and
  5. with this set up at the beginning, step out of the way and trust the authors to do what they do best – write stories.

In all honesty, had The Red Book turned out to be disaster, if  our idea of a multi-author interconnected work hadn’t transferred successfully in practise Paul and I would have stopped. There would not have been a second Chinese Whisperings. Sometimes it is best to cut your losses and move onto something else – as my Dad says, no point flogging a dead horse.

Paul and I are the first to admit we did so many things wrong with The Red Book, but we learnt from those pioneering mistakes and we moved on to adapt what we had learned and applied it to The Yin & Yang Book. We found ways to ensure the project kept to the timetable, we learned new ways as editors to bring out the absolute best in our authors and we learned the subtle art of interweaving. I grew as an editor to find it’s not just about word wrangling… being an editor also includes the hats of confidante, cheer squad, life coach, best friend and mortal enemy… possibly all in the space of a few lines in an email. It’s much more than just the words. eP projects support new talent, but they also nurture connection and community in a plethora of brand new, and expanding relationships.

Licensing agreements should never exist as restraints to delineate acceptable behaviour. Agreements exist for two simple reasons – to define the path to and the outcomes of, publication, and to identify the parties involved.

And for this reason, I’ve never needed to suggest to Paul we include a clause in any of our agreements which expressively forbid any of our authors from doing anything which may harm the project they are involved with. In fact, until yesterday, it was a clause I’d never even thought of. To do so would be an admission we can’t come to a logical and mutually amicable agreement when a problem arises with an author during the writing and editing process. But more so, it would be an admission we don’t know how to treat our authors with respect and dignity so they feel the need to go forth to say and do harmful things toward the publication they are included in, or worse still, believe that anyone would. It would be saying we don’t trust our writers to do the right thing.

But in the end, the real lesson is, first do no harm.

I ask, anyone reading this who knows the un-named project I refer to here, to please refrain from naming it in any comments made.

* original wording substituted for ‘work’ to avoid indentifying the publication or publisher.

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One thought on “First Do No Harm

  1. Hi Jodi,
    I’ve always felt that I, and my work, has been treated with respect and dignity. You have provided the guidelines above and stuck to them, and provided avenues for dialogue and discussion.
    May eP go from strength to strength with each publication.
    Adam B @revhappiness

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