Writers in the Storm

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June 9, 2017

The Legal Side of Writing for Anthologies

Susan Spann

Anthologies are a popular way for authors to gain publishing credits, build an audience, and cross-pollinate readership with other writers in a genre. Anthologies may be traditionally-published, author-published (i.e., self-published, either by the entire group or by the author who edits the larger work), or organized by a charity or writers’ group (like Mystery Writers of America, RWA, or a local or regional writing organization). Some anthologies have open submissions, while others consider contributions by invitation only, or only from members of the group that sponsors the anthology.

Properly managed and published, anthologies can offer writers many benefits, with only a few drawbacks. However, authors need to ensure--before submitting work or signing a contract--that the anthology in question is offering proper, industry-standard contractual terms and legal protections for the author and his or her work.

Let’s take a look at some of the common traps and pitfalls authors encounter when contributing to anthologies—and how to avoid them:

  1. Insist Upon a Professional, Written Contract.

In addition to establishing the terms under which the publisher can use the author’s work, a contract proves the anthology publisher understands the legalities of the publishing industry. Anthology contracts are often shorter than contracts for novel-length works, but they should still be professionally drafted (read: by a publishing lawyer) and address the legal issues relevant to anthology publishing.

Never allow your work to be published in any anthology that doesn't have a professional, written contract.  

  1. Always Keep Sole Ownership of Copyright in Your Work.

Anthology publishers do NOT need, and should never request, copyright ownership of the contributed works. Anthology publishers only need a limited license to publish your story as part of the anthology.

If you transfer copyright ownership, you no longer own the story, which means you cannot use it or publish it anywhere else. That isn’t industry-standard, and no reputable anthology will require you to transfer copyright to the publisher in order to include your work.

One caveat: the contract may state that the publisher owns the collective work copyright on the anthology. This is different from owning copyright on the individual stories. Copyright in a collective work refers to the right to publish the anthology as a collection consisting of all of the stories within it. It’s a separate, lesser form of copyright that ensures no one else can reproduce and sell the anthology without the publisher’s permission.

If you don’t understand what your contract says about copyrights, consult an experienced agent or publishing lawyer before you sign.

  1. Know Where The Money Is Going.

 Sometimes, authors receive a royalty on anthology sales. In other cases, especially when anthologies are published by or on behalf of charities or writers’ groups, contributing writers don’t get paid and profits on anthology sales belong to the sponsoring organization or charity.

It isn’t “bad” or “wrong” to contribute your work to anthologies that don’t pay authors royalties. However, you should make sure your contract states, and you agree with, where the money is going before you agree to participate.

  1. Beware of Mandatory Purchases (& Fees).

Some anthologies require participating authors to purchase copies of the finished work or to pay a part of the anthology’s publishing and marketing costs. Legitimate publishers don’t require authors to purchase copies of finished works—and that goes for anthologies too. (Allowing purchases, or offering discounts to contributing authors, is totally different than mandating purchases or fees.)

As for costs: use business judgment. Author-published anthologies where the contributors share the costs and profits may or may not be a good idea, depending upon the contract terms. Always consult an agent or lawyer before you sign any contract that requires you to pay money out of pocket.

  1. Use Good Judgment.

Anthologies, like publishers, are not created equal. Some have stronger reputations (and sell more copies) than others do. Evaluate the contract terms, the publisher, and all other relevant deal points before you submit your work.

As an author, you have the right to license your work on any terms you consider fair, but educate yourself about the industry standards, too. That way, you’ll know when someone offers you excellent, fair, or less-than-appropriate terms. 

Have you licensed your work to an anthology? I’d love to hear about your experiences with anthology publishing, too!

About Susan

Susan Spann is a California transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business, and is also the author of the Hiro Hattori (Shinobi) mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo. Her fourth novel, THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER, released from Seventh Street Books in August 2016. Susan was the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2015 Writer of the Year, and when not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.

Find her online at http://www.SusanSpann.com, on Twitter (@SusanSpann), and on Facebook (/SusanSpannBooks).

17 comments on “The Legal Side of Writing for Anthologies”

  1. Excellent advice and the kind of thing that a writer, in their enthusiasm to be published, likely wouldn't even think about. For instance, the requirement for mandatory purchases but at a reduced rate is still a mandatory purchase and questionable. I'm sharing this with all my clients. Thanks.

    1. Thank you for sharing the information - and yes, it's exactly the kind of issue that writers often don't think through, especially when they're new to publication and (understandably) excited to be included.

  2. Great article. I write for many anthologies. Recently, one editor wanted all rights and I refused to sign the contract. Apparently, so did many of the entrants, so the editor had her lawyers redo the contract and resent it to us and we did sign. So, don't just say no, protest with a written response as to why, yet acknowledge that you are pleased to be asked. Can you imagine, for example, writing something personal and going to a play where your story is being performed without your permission? Also note that in the educational field, many professors (some who need to "publish or perish") want to publish you so they can use an anthology as their textbook, often published in hardback and very expensive for students. You should at least get a complimentary copy. With one, an editor told me a reputable publisher refused. Enough of us, again, wrote to protest, and the publisher sold to us at half price. Still, that made the hardcover edition $35.00. Writer beware.

    1. This is excellent advice. In many cases writers should definitely ask for changes rather than simply "walking" - as many anthology publishers will change the terms if enough people ask. Sometimes, they will even make changes for a single author, asking alone. The only caveat (as I'm sure you know) is that you need to make sure the publisher is reputable enough to keep its word, and that it won't simply ignore the contract and act wrongfully, knowing the author won't have the money or put forth the effort to sue.

      1. I did ask first, but ended up walking away from an anthology I was accepted into over rights issues. First, they had written it so that I gave up my rights whether or not the anthology actually got printed. They did fix that. However, they wanted exclusive rights, all formats, for the life of the copyright, including condensed/expanded versions. Although technically, they did not ask for the copyright itself, I saw no substantive difference between what they asked and giving away my copyright entirely. I told them this was unacceptable, and they never did come back with a reasonable contributor agreement revision. The sad thing is -- this is a well-known publisher, and one that I thought was reputable. Left a bad taste in my mouth.

  3. Yes, I've always been curious on how the money is dealt with on anthologies. I know there is the ability to list many authors, but I'm wondering if the back-end of Amazon has a way to do a percentage split, or if one author has to pay all the others.

    1. It varies, Jenny - I'll try to get a post pulled together on the economics of anthology royalty splits (for August, if I can get the head space, otherwise for September), because I've dealt with a lot of these, and I can shed some light on it. (Spoiler alert: Amazon doesn't do splits, so there needs to be another mechanism.)

  4. I JUST released my first novella in an anthology. I knew all the authors personally, but I still insisted on a contract - it was very informal, but laid out what would happen with rights, money, and who would do what.

    I was approached to be in an anthology years ago, and I'm so glad I checked with my agent first - she said it was a horrible contract, and not to sign it. Glad I didn't!

    Thanks for this, Susan. Publishing professionals aren't the only ones you have to look out for!

    1. This is so, so smart Laura. Ironically, the only times in my practice that I've seen writers' friendships go truly and irrevocably nuclear are the ones where authors entered into a writing project without a contract. Where a contract exists, it gives a peaceful way to resolve issues, and it truly does save relationships as well as projects.

  5. Fantastic advice. I recently read an anthology proposal with a quasi contract an author was organizing for charity. It had so many holes in what she wanted: how the royalties were being handled, lack of the charity named, etc...I didn't bother to seek more info with so many red flags.


  6. Hi Susan-I always learn so much from your posts. I am currently editing an anthology and a few author's asked for first serial rights, mostly so they can sell their work in another place. I want to offer this to all the contributors. This is an anthology of mixed Korean stories and the proceeds are going to two charities. Do you have an idea of where I can get a copy of a contract that I can give to our writers. Most people are not "professional" writers but I want to make sure they all have their rights protected.

  7. Thanks for this short and easy list to remember, Susan! I could see Trap and Pitfall 2 falling into the cracks in a desire to "get published."

  8. As always, thank you Susan for this excellent advice on writing for anthologies. I've shared it generously online. As for contributing to an anthology, I submitted a memoir piece about raising my special needs daughter for the anthology Easy to Love But Hard to Raise, real parents’ experiences raising special needs children. I received ten copies as compensation and became a part of their blog, contributing posts occasionally.

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