This post is part of the regular column Sam Stephens: On Reading and Writing Fiction.
A friend of mine, Michael Grey, brought this to my attention. Picture this, if you will:
Here you are, a budding author, looking for your big break.
Sound familiar so far?
To help build some branding and recognition, you submit your manuscript to a writing competition. You pay an entry fee, and cross your fingers, waiting to hear if you’ve landed a podium finish. But you hear nothing. Then one day a friend sends you an email, congratulating you on the publication of your book.
You say, “Thanks!” and then suddenly realise this is the first you’ve heard of it. On further investigation you find that the competition organisers have just published your work under their own name, and have recently bought a yacht and private jet with the proceeds.
If you’ve ever dedicated long, gruelling months (and sometimes years) to writing your first novel, then you’re probably sitting there with a queasy feeling in your stomach and a sudden inexplicable desire to take a long, hot shower with three bars of soap and a fistful of steel wool.
But that couldn’t happen – not in the professional world of publishing, right? Well yes, that’s right. But note the word “professional”. Unfortunately not all websites, competitions, and publishers are professional.
What spawned this column was a specific writing competition. And in this competition, hidden away in the Terms and Conditions of entry was the agreement that as soon as you enter the competition (and pay your entry fee), you’re signing copyright of your manuscript over to the promoter. In essence, you’re paying someone to take complete ownership of your work. You send it, they own it.
So this raises the question: is this normal?
And to that question, I can give a resounding No.
For clarification, I’ve spoken to two people who are well versed in the areas of publishing and writing competitions.
I’d like to thank Beverley Cousins from Random House Australia for taking the time to answer the following questions:
Do authors represented by Random House (and other legitimate publishers) retain copyright to their work?
Yes – authors keep copyright. Publishers buy the right to publish, usually for the lifetime of that copyright (although rights can revert back to the author if the book is out of print for an agreed period of time).
Which “rights” do you sign over to a publisher when you submit your work for consideration?
Which “rights” do you sign over to a publisher when they accept your work?
The publisher will pay for the right to publish either throughout the world, or for a specified territory. Today this means both print and electronic rights. Other rights are negotiable, but can include TV/Film, Serial, Condensation, Audio, Book Club, Large Print, etc.
Again, a big thanks to Beverley Cousins for her expertise. Now keep that in mind while we look at competitions.
Here are the same questions, but with regards to writing competitions. Steve Rossiter, Editor for The Australian Literature Review was also kind enough to clarify:
Do writers submitting to AusLit competitions retain copyright to their work?
Yes. When a writer submits a story for a competition on The Australian Literature Review the only thing they are handing over is the right to display that story on auslit.net, as stated on the Submit page. The Australian Literature Review cannot then publish the story elsewhere without gaining permission from the writer. The writer is free to sell or have their story displayed wherever else they like.
Which “rights” do you sign over to a competition organiser when you submit?
This depends on the competition, as each can have different terms and conditions. I recommend reading all terms and conditions supplied by whoever is running a competition. Some have lots of conditions and some have just a few simple ones. If the conditions are worded ambiguously, ask for clarification (by email so you have a written record) and if you suspect the organisers of a competition are just after cheap material to publish for their own gain, don’t enter.
Which “rights” do you sign over to a competition organiser if you win?
Again, this varies from one competition to another (so be sure to read all terms and conditions provided). Typically the terms and conditions would state that the winner’s story, and maybe some of the other entrants’ stories, would be published/displayed somewhere. In some competitions, there may also be provisions for promotional use of the writing (such as use of an excerpt in advertising) and there are already provisions in law for ‘fair use’ of copyrighted material (such as use of an excerpt in the context of a discussion or review of a story).
As you can see by both replies, you, as the writer, should always retain copyright to your work.
So how does copyright work? The quick and dirty answer is that as soon as you write something down, you own copyright to it. In Australia (and a lot of countries), it’s automatic. It’s your ownership of the product you just produced.
And you should always keep that ownership. Professional publishers and competition organisers simply aren’t interested in owning your work. All they want to do is publish or display it in some way, and for that right they’ll shower you with gold, gems, and various other shiny things.
So next time you submit your work to a competition or to a publisher, remember to read the fine print. It may just save your soul.
— Sam Stephens www.samstephens.com
Sam Stephens is the winner of a number of short story awards, including James Patterson’s Airborne project, and two AusLit short story awards. You can read a number of his short stories for free on his website, and follow him on Twitter.
The Australian Literature Review