Crowdfunded Anthologies: Concerns For Writers

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Anthologies, once a staple of genre publishing, have become a rarity at major publishing houses over the past couple of decades.

Small presses still embrace the anthology format, however, as do genre readers–at least, judging by the number of small press or one-off genre anthology projects on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter. While most of these campaigns are completely above-board, some are less so, and their growing popularity makes it vital for writers to be aware of several areas of concern. (Donors, too. Do you really want to give money to an anthology that doesn’t treat its writers fairly?)

Donating backer prizes.

Many crowdfunded anthologies ask or expect their authors to donate prizes for campaign backers–a story critique, a Tuckerization, an illustration, an item of the author’s choice.

From the perspective of the anthology’s publisher or organizer, the benefits are obvious: more (and more tempting) backer incentives increase the chances of a successful campaign. For authors, though, things are not so clear-cut, and I’ve seen quite a bit of discussion of the ethics of being asked or expected to donate freebies. Some writers don’t mind, especially where there’s no pressure, but others worry about what seems to be a growing assumption that authors owe extra support to crowdfunded anthologies that include their work.

Small press publisher Steven Saus, who has conducted a number of Kickstarter campaigns, addresses this issue in an interesting post on how to manage backer rewards in an ethical fashion. This includes providing a written document or contract specifically addressing rewards.

The important features of such a contract will be:

  • Who is involved (organizer, author)
  • That ONLY if the crowdfunding succeeds, the author will offer a backer reward.
  • A clear explanation of the Reward
  • A timetable of delivery/fulfillment of the Reward
  • Any costs or reimbursement involved, as needed
  • That the offering of the Reward is independent of the contract for the story in the anthology

Short of that (and I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet there aren’t may Kickstarter anthologists who are as scrupulous as Steven), you can protect yourself by clarifying upfront with the anthology’s editor what, if anything, will be expected of you in addition to your story.

Rights and payment.

With many anthology crowdfunding campaigns, the anthology doesn’t yet exist. It may be an idea that will be pursued only if funding is raised, or it may have particular authors attached who’ve promised stories but haven’t yet written them.

Other campaigns have already done all or most of the work: invited submissions, selected stories, even issued contracts. But is that ethical, if author payment is contingent on a successful campaign? If the campaign fails and the anthology is abandoned, authors have basically written a story for free. Sure, they can try to sell it elsewhere, but that may not be so easy if the anthology has a narrowly-defined theme.

And what happens to authors’ rights if the campaign fails and the anthology is not abandoned? If contracts have been signed, authors’ rights could be tied up for an indefinite period of time while the publisher or organizer tries to figure out what to do. Not to mention, whatever payment structure may initially have been promised may now not be possible.

If you’re asked to sign a contract prior to completion of a campaign, make sure there’s language covering what happens in the event of campaign failure: automatic rights reversion, for instance, or the option of terminating the contract on your own. Alternatively, the contract could allow the publisher or organizer to hold your rights only for a limited period–for instance, 12 months from contract signing.

Steven Saus suggests another possibility: solicit the stories, assemble the anthology, but don’t issue contracts until after the campaign closes.

So yes, these authors wrote a story prior to the Kickstarter. Some of them have been waiting a few months now after acceptance. But the stories are still theirs. They haven’t actually sold me the story yet… because I haven’t paid them and they haven’t signed a contract. If the Kickstarter doesn’t fund, I will offer a different funding mechanism… and the authors can accept or reject it as they feel appropriate. Simple as that.

Becoming a backer for an anthology you may also want to submit to.

In some of the crowdfunding discussions I’ve seen, it’s been proposed that campaigns should maintain a wall between backers and contributors: i.e., if you back the campaign you can’t submit to the anthology, and if you want to submit to the anthology, you can’t back the campaign.

At first glance, this seems like a pretty obvious way to avoid conflicts of interest. However, writers are also readers, and some people feel that such a policy could have a chilling effect on donations, or push publishers toward eliminating open submissions.

Once again, Steven Saus–who has been doing a lot of thinking about these issues, and, as far as I’m aware, is the only small press publisher to have crafted a detailed crowdfunding policy–offers an alternative:

In such instances that an open call occurs after the successful completion of a crowdfunding campaign, the submissions editor(s) will not have access to the lists of backers, nor will the organizer of the campaign have access to the lists of submitters.

Should a submitter refer to their level of backing of the crowdfunding campaign in the submission, cover letter, or correspondence with the submission editor(s) prior to story acceptance or rejection, the submission will be summarily rejected.

Preferential treatment.

It should go without saying that authors shouldn’t be able to buy their way into a crowdfunded anthology, either by donating money or contributing prizes.

However, there are plenty of anecdotes about preferential treatment–anthologies that offer an early submission window to writers who back the campaign, or give priority to authors who commit to buying the anthology once it’s published, or limit acceptance to authors with a history of vigorous self-promotion, even if their stories are inferior to non-promoters’. Or this campaign, which offered the following donor prize:

Pledge $300 or more
KAIJU CREATOR: Write your own Kaiju-inspired short story and submit it to Ragnarok Publications EIC, Tim Marquitz, for a thorough edit AND the potential—no guarantees, but likely—to have it included in the Kaiju Rising anthology! Yes, you have an inside shot at having your story in the book, but you MUST understand that Ragnarok Publications will have COMPLETE EDITORIAL DOMAIN over your story to assure it meets professional standards of quality and you will sign a contract giving Ragnarok publication rights for a limited period of time, however YOU will retain the copyright to your story and be credited as the story’s author. You’ll also get everything in the Kaiju Soldier tier. NOTE: The funds in this tier primarily go to cover the cost of editorial services.

Even if payments or donations aren’t a requirement for submission, this give something/get something approach comes perilously close to vanity publishing. At the very least, it’s a conflict of interest–plus, it has the potential to drag down the anthology’s quality.

The problem is, such policies may not always be officially stated. Protect yourself by researching the anthology’s publisher or organizer as thoroughly as you can.

Donations–whether money or services–as a requirement for submission.

I’ve seen two crowdfunded anthology projects with this requirement (unfortunately, neither is still online, so I can’t provide links). This is vanity publishing, and it’s completely unethical. Both authors and donors should avoid any crowdfunding campaign where a purchase or a donation is a requirement for submission.

In closing…

The crowdfunding universe is still new, and rapidly evolving. Will it continue to expand exponentially? Will backer fatigue eventually clip its growth? No one knows. In the meantime, one thing is certain: as with just about every aspect of writing and publishing, there’s plenty of room for author exploitation. Be on your guard.

I’d like to eventually incorporate this information into the Writer Beware website, so I’m looking for input–thoughts, questions, suggestions for other issues of concern. Please comment here, or to contact me via email.