There are some things I’ve written in bits and pieces to others about publishers and publishing contracts and whether it’s worth it for an author of hand knitting patterns (or rather, the designer and pattern writer, since these roles are frequently combined) to self-publish, or publish through a third party. I figured it was time to collate some of them in one post. (A lot of this is on Ravelry, which already does have several thousand members and everybody will be assimilated soon, but those posts are buried in old forum threads, now.)
This is not (duh) legal advice, and in fact any discussion of the law is kept to a minimum. And there are no dollar figures (well, not very many). What this post really contains is… common sense. At least, I think it’s common sense — you may have a different sense than I do.
Sometimes new knitting authors — or rather, those new to being published by others — encounter offers of publication, and find themselves internally asking, “is this a good deal?” or better yet, asking others with more experience, “is this a good deal?”.
Asking other people with more experience in the field is a good idea, because they are probably aware of other issues that the new designer hasn’t thought of at all, and they may raise those issues for further consideration. But do not expect to find the “yes” or “no” answer this way, for a couple of reasons:
First, other people may be sensitive about disclosing their business information, either directly to another person or in a public forum. Would you disclose your financial information to a virtual stranger who happens to share a love of knitting? Would you tell this stranger about your negotiation efforts with a particular publisher, and their outcome? … well, okay, seeing as there are a lot of knitters who blog about personal and employment issues that I would filter myself, maybe you would. But by and large, one doesn’t disclose many particular details about their business unless they have reason to be comfortable doing so — because they know the person to whom they are disclosing it, they know the information won’t be used in competition against them, they know this person won’t blurt out the information to someone else.
Secondly, whether something is a “good deal” is very subjective; it really depends on an author’s priorities, his or her needs, and his or her intentions for the work created. Whether something is a “good deal” also depends on context: “good deal” could mean “am I being taken advantage of?”, or “would I be better off publishing via a different route?”, or “is this publishing contract actually giving me what they promised/what I expect?”… and even if the answer is not the one that the author wanted to hear, there is still the question of, “should I just agree to suck it up anyway, in the hopes that the intangible benefits will outweigh the negatives?”
… And there’s no clear way to answer these questions. People will determine whether a deal is “good” with reference to their own experience. For example, knowing how much might be made from self-publishing and distributing a pattern, one knitting author who derives most of her knitting-related income from publishing patterns only may declare that all publishing contracts from book and magazine publishers have got to be bad deals because they all curtail the author’s rights after first publication, or the value of those rights, in some manner; somebody else, whose income is mainly derived from travelling and teaching across the country and who needs to ensure that his name gets maximum exposure in order to create demand for his services, might think that magazine contracts are not so bad after all because the intangible losses are balanced by intangible gains. (These are just examples pulled out of thin air — I’m not trying to obliquely reference any personalities in particular.)
Answering some of these questions involves actually reading and, more importantly, understanding the contract at issue. Answering some of these questions involves an exploration of publishing alternatives. Answering all of these questions also requires the author to have his or her priorities lined up: the importance of money, the importance of retaining the right to deal with the pattern as he or she sees fit in the future, the importance of intangible benefits like exposure in a print publication. Nobody can get an answer to “is this a good deal?” without already knowing what their objectives are.
In short, there’s nothing wrong with asking other people who you know have more experience in the field. But bear in mind that these other people can’t do all your thinking for you, and their impressions of what you’ve been offered may be skewed by the priorities they apply to their own business, not by the priorities that you have determined (or haven’t) for yours. The answers you’ll get will be helpful, but they’ll often be heavy on generalities, like this post, and light on the gory details (like, “I tried negotiating a such-and-such a change to my contract with that company and they bent over backwards/told me to take a hike” or “I got $350 for my layette design”). In addition, it may even be that the people who are giving you useful advice don’t even completely understand the contracts they’ve signed themselves.
Ask away, but the final decision is yours.
Book and magazine publishers are in the business for their own gain. Yes, a publishing business may have started for the love of the craft, but love does not keep a business afloat, nor does it pay other people’s salaries. This is not to say that publishers are bad; they’re not all trying to get rich off their contributors’ blood, sweat, and tears, but it doesn’t mean that they’re simply trying to give away their own money or to break even, either. Publishers can provide the author with an opportunity to be published on a scale that might not be possible with self-publishing, or that might only be possible with self-publishing with a lot of time and labour that the author might not be able to dedicate to the venture.
The point is, just because a publisher loves knitting as much as you, and is beloved by all readers, doesn’t mean that the deals the publisher offers will ultimately work in your best interest. And that’s okay; you have the power to decide whether to take that deal, decline, or try to negotiate better terms.
Compensation from knitting publications has not matched inflation
Just in case you’re wondering. Have you heard the anecdote that magazine compensation for a knitting pattern hasn’t increased over ten or more years? Ask around.
Here’s a link to U.S. consumer price index information (click on the “Inflation Calculator”): comparing 2006 to 1996, there was a 28% increase. If compensation matched inflation, then somebody who was paid $500 for first publication rights for a pattern in 1996 should receive about $640 now. But anecdotally speaking, at least (remember, people are not going to divulge their financial information to all and sundry), they’re not getting that.
Technically speaking, you could say that over the past ten years, the average compensation across the industry from magazines has decreased, if you include online publications. However, you can’t make a straight comparison this way, because…
Dollar figures aren’t the whole story
Some publishers may compensate contributors on comparable pay scales. However, a full comparison will also take other intangibles into account.
Think about the labour involved. If an article pays something along the same scale as a pattern, then an author may realize more, on an hourly wage basis, for writing an article than writing a pattern. This depends on the subject matter; a technically complex or exhaustively-researched article may take a lot longer to complete than a one-hour hat in a couple of sizes. But if the author of a pattern is expected to supply draft instructions and numbers for a range of sizes, a sample garment, and perhaps to change the pattern to suit a yarn selected by the editor, the number of hours of work can skyrocket. It has been pointed out by others that the development of a pattern, from initial concept, yarn research and swatching, to experimental and test knitting (and ripping), pattern writing and revision, to sample knitting and final draft reduces the standard magazine compensation to something less than minimum wage.
In addition to the labour of generating a pattern in the first place, today the labour simply does not stop there. Ten or twenty years ago, if a reader had a problem with a pattern, most questions would have been fielded by the publisher as the main point of contact. Now, it’s easier for the reader to seek out and contact the author directly, because many authors now have an Internet presence. (And the authors especially need that Internet presence to promote their businesses if the compensation from traditional publishing outlets hasn’t improved.)
Think about the rights involved. It is not enough, really, to be told that the author will “retain copyright”. One can draft a contract that leaves copyright with the author while effectively eviscerating whatever rights the author’s copyright may carry with it. It is possible to draft a contract that purports to allow an author to republish a pattern or article two years (or less) after the first publication in a magazine, but then to throw in a proviso that prevents the author from competing with the publisher in any way… and also gives the publisher the right to republish the pattern or article itself, if it chooses. Are these bad deals? Maybe, maybe not; it really depends on what plans the author might have had for the pattern after its original publication went out of print. Was she planning to distribute for free, package it up in a kit for sale, or sell copies of the pattern itself? Given the level of compensation from a publisher, the author may be counting on the opportunity to exploit the pattern to generate further income, to make up for that less-than-minimum-wage period. If the contract she signs removes that opportunity… well, that’s a problem.
And that bit above about compensation not increasing over the past ten years? There is something that has changed in recent years. Since the advent of digital distribution (whether over the Internet or on physical media), there have been lawsuits over the scope of freelancer’s publishing contracts, and whether publishers had the right to distribute freelancers’ works digitally. Publishers who are now aware that the contracts they put out five or so years ago might not have given them rights to digital distribution, are taking more care to make sure that they retain some of these rights themselves. It’s possible, then, that for the same compensation offered ten years ago, the author is actually retaining fewer rights than previously.
This doesn’t mean that a deal that allows you to retain copyright and be free to exercise your copyright is automatically the best deal. Consider online publications that offer up their archives to readers for free, in perpetuity. You may be paid less, but you may retain copyright without too many limitations on its exploitation; however, if the pattern or article is available for the foreseeable future for free, it takes some creativity to realize more revenue when you’re competing against the free offering. (It’s certainly possible: you can expand a pattern with extra sizes, or you can diversify and sell kits or printed versions to yarn shops, for example.)
Cranking numbers at this point might suggest that self-publishing, or if not self-publishing, entering into a different type of publishing deal that provides a decent royalty (and not just a token amount) is the ticket. Maybe so. On the other hand, self-publishing takes a lot more work on an ongoing basis, because the self-publisher usually interacts with her customers directly and handles her own promotion, and will continue to do so for as long as she has a product to sell. Licensing a pattern for a royalty payment might result in less revenue per sale for the author, but may also require less work; but whether this balances out to be better or worse than self-publishing in the long run depends on the level of sales and the effort that the publisher itself puts into selling the pattern, too.
And in that vein, you need to think about the intangible benefits of exposure, too. For some, getting published in a national or international magazine is a necessary step to getting one’s name “out there”, and whatever loss of rights and/or money is worth it. For others, it’s not, and they haven’t regretted foregoing that exposure. The positive effects of being published in a magazine or a book are not easily quantified. If you self-publish as well, some readers may indeed find you because you were published elsewhere, and maybe those readers will be converted to customers. But there’s no formula that guarantees this. Some knitters have an aversion to paying for single patterns, and may only ever want to purchase magazines on the theory that they may want to knit multiple patterns from a single issue. Some knitters just want free patterns. Still, some knitters do turn into customers.
If you are thinking about entering into a publishing agreement, driven mainly by the promise of exposure or promotion, still consider the risk that it won’t happen. In an offer to be published in somebody else’s compilation of patterns, you may be promised that your website’s URL will be published in a book… but what if the publisher makes a last-minute decision to remove it? If you were counting on that promise, do you have any recourse?
As you can see, for all publishing routes, you need to balance what the publisher can offer (or what you can get the publisher to offer) against what you’re losing by publishing with that publisher. You may calculate that if you self-published a pattern — while this does take more ongoing effort on your part — the modest sales over a year would result in greater revenue than the top rate you could get out of a magazine, and that ongoing sales beyond that year might make up for the magazine publisher’s re-use fees or royalties. On the other hand, sometimes there are intangible benefits that you can’t easily quantify, like the cachet of being published in one of the “big” magazines, and the opportunity to reach out to an audience that might not have heard of you online. But if your target market is web-enabled and not afraid of online transactions, you might not care about that cachet or opportunity quite so much (but concluding that your target market is only web-enabled is a big assumption to make).
You v. Them
Sadly, despite the great and abiding love that all parties concerned may have for two sticks and string, when a knitting publishing contract is negotiated there is usually a power imbalance, for one or more reasons:
First, the author is (usually) a single individual; a sole proprietor or principal of a business. He or she is contemplating entering into a one-off contract to supply one work to a publisher, for what looks like a relatively small sum — “small”, when you compare the dollar value to cars and houses, for example. The author typically does not have a background in publishing or copyright law, but the dollar value involved, when compared to a literary agent’s cut or a lawyer’s fees, makes seeking business or legal advice seem like an extravagance; it might make financial sense to get a lawyer involved when you propose to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars… but a publishing contract for five hundred dollars? (In some areas, you may be able to get cheaper legal advice from associations that provide legal assistance specifically to artists). The publisher, on the other hand, probably paid a lawyer to draft its publishing contracts, and got advice about what kinds of modifications they can safely make without compromising the rights they want to retain.
So far as contract-specific knowledge is concerned, then, the typical author enters the contract negotiation with a disadvantage. And sadly, it is not always wise for the author to believe whatever the publisher’s representative or editor says — they’re not legal experts, either, and what they say about the nature of the contract may be inaccurate (whether deliberately or accidentally so). If a publisher’s rep says one thing, but your reading of the contract says another thing, you should consider getting legal advice.
Secondly, a new author doesn’t have complete information about what is “standard” in the industry for these types of contracts. That’s where calling on other authors with more experience comes in, and that’s addressed above.
Thirdly, there’s the timing issue. Given the number of steps required to generate a magazine, submissions are due at the magazine a year or so in advance of the publication date. Accepted submissions must be finalized well in advance of publication because patterns and articles need to be edited, sample garments need to be photographed, and so on. That’s understandable. But the actual contract governing the publication of the article or pattern is usually not received by the author until she receives the “guess what? we’ve accepted your submission for publication!” notification — or later. (Try asking a magazine publisher for a copy of their standard contract before you make a submission to them. See if you get it, or just a rep’s description of what they say it says.) By this point, the timeline for getting the submission finalized, samples knit, and everything delivered to the publisher has been set. The author is elated, perhaps panicky about meeting deadlines, perhaps excited about the forthcoming payment. The emotional reaction may overwhelm the inclination to evaluate the terms of the contract before signing.
And finally, a newer author might be afraid to negotiate or to walk away from a not-so-good deal. The author may want or need the payment. She’s excited. She knows that the publisher gets lots of submissions. Despite the tight timeline, the publisher probably has time to drop a project and replace it with something else if one deal falls through. So, the author might be afraid that if she makes difficulties about the contractual terms, she might blow the whole deal, or might never get another publishing contract. That may not be true, but a new author doesn’t know that because she may never have negotiated a contract before. If a sample garment needs to be knit, there may not be enough time to negotiate terms without starting the sample knitting… and if the knitting is done and the negotiations have stalled, what then?
What do you do?
There are a lot of related issues not discussed here: the merits of print vs. digital distribution, copyright infringement, actually getting paid (and when), what to do when a potential publisher asks you for a contract, for example. Although most of this post dealt with publication through a magazine (or a book) publisher vs. a bit of self-publishing, those aren’t the only options. A pattern author can enter into a deal with a local shop that wants to print and distribute her patterns; she can sell or licence a design to a yarn manufacturer; she can licence the pattern to a distributor who publishes the patterns digitally and pays a royalty. Whether any one of these options (or a combination of them), will work best depends on the individual author.
You can choose to sign a contract that you actually think is a bad deal — that’s your business, and your choice. Ideally, though, won’t do it repeatedly, and you’ll first think about whether the contract you sign today will curtail your plans for the future. Even though you can’t predict the future, you can figure out your priorities now and treat yourself fairly by agreeing only to those deals that help advance your priorities — not somebody else’s.