Publishers Corner: Advances in Mormon Publishing?

By Chris Bigelow

In this post’s title, the word “advances” could mean two different things: a synonym for progress or a reference to the practice of publishers paying authors an advance on royalties. The second meaning is the one I’d like to mainly discuss.

I was recently asked by an LDS-market publisher to consider researching and writing a couple of nonfiction books that the publisher had conceptualized. As part of our discussion, we talked about expected minimum sales and related percentages and figures. When I went home to think about it, I pulled out my calculator and figured the worst-case royalties on projected sales. I then went back to the publisher to see if they would give me an advance based on that.

To my surprise, they said, “No, we never pay advances.” For some reason, I’d been under the impression that the Mormon market had matured enough to start paying advances, at least with nonfiction books. I believe I’ve heard of Deseret paying advances, and I’ve even seen actual communications from Cedar Fort talking about $50,000 advances. The advance amounts I proposed to this publisher were well under half that amount.

In this small Mormon market, I can understand not paying an advance to a previously unknown novelist who has already completed his or her novel at the time of acceptance. However, I can’t fathom why a publisher would not offer an advance to a professional nonfiction writer with a proven track record, especially when the book is the publisher’s idea in the first place.

To my way of thinking, an advance is much like the retainer paid to a lawyer to engage his or her services and get him or her working on your case. Without paying an advance, a publisher is making an author bear the full weight of time investment and risk. I guess they can get away with it if the author is an amateur who doesn’t rely on the income, but it doesn’t seem fair to someone trying to make a career of writing. By not paying an advance, the publisher is essentially saying to the author, “We’re not positive we’ll actually publish this, and if we do publish it, we’re not sure we can actually sell any.” Otherwise, why not put forward a show of good faith in the form of a reasonable advance?

Not only is an advance on royalties simply a professional way to treat authors, but many authors reinvest advanced funds to help the project. For instance, one main reason I asked for an advance on these commissioned books was so I could subcontract with a researcher. Some authors use advances to hire their own PR firm, hire out design of their own professional website, etc. Lack of advances may be one main reason why there’s little, if any, agent activity in the Mormon market.

Personally, I’d like to see the Mormon market get more universally professional in this and other areas. In the case I mentioned above, I declined the jobs because of the lack of advances. If I’d been desperate for work at the time, I might have been more willing to speculate with my time, but I still would have felt that I was being taken advantage of, to some degree.

What have you observed in the Mormon publishing world related to advances? Do you agree that more advances should be paid more often? And what other advances need to be made?

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16 Responses to Publishers Corner: Advances in Mormon Publishing?

  1. Moriah Jovan says:

    However, I can’t fathom why a publisher would not offer an advance to a professional nonfiction writer with a proven track record, especially when the book is the publisher’s idea in the first place.

    Oh, hey, I’m with you there. I’m actually shocked, because it sounds almost like a work-for-hire to me…

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    Yeah. Work-for-hire done on spec. The best of both worlds, from the publisher’s point of view… at least, if reducing risk to the publisher is the most important goal.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Wow. Is this a publisher who is likely capable of paying a $25,000 advance? Until Mormon writers start demanding professionalism from publishers, be they book-form or periodical, it isn’t going to happen. So bully for you.

    This is a lesser issue, but I’m stuck with it and this post reminds me of it so out it comes. I don’t really expect sympathy and I’m not mad. Annoyed, yes, and, in truth, I was mad at first. That was brief. Here goes my tale of woe: I had a story printed in Dialogue a short while back. “Straight Home.” I guess they never had me sign a contract, but hey, it’s the Mormon world, right? We all trust and respect each other. I knew I was giving away first publication rights and allowing them to digitize the story for Dialogue’s online use. I retain all other rights.

    Well, turns out (or so I’ve been told) the business manager sold my story, along with others in the journal, to docstoc.com, who now has it up online for purchase at $6.99 a pop and is claiming they hold the copyright to “Straight Home.” Which they definitely don’t bc Dialogue didn’t have the right to sell the copyright, only to digitize. Of course no one is paying $6.99 for “Straight Home,” but if they did, I’d get nothing in payment for the story, even though I retain the rights. Dialogue was paid by docstoc.com when they sold my story, which falls, I guess in their eyes, under the digitize part of the contract I wasn’t presented. (I remember scratching my head and wondering if they sent me a contract or not. Mea culpa and then some. But the good folks at Dialogue acknowledge the rights to the story are mine.)

    I’ve been back and forth with Dialogue, and have been told their board member lawyers will look into this, but come on. It’s being ignored, and I get that. Dialogue is all volunteer. I’m a volunteer writer, for that matter. What volunteer attorney is going to care what happens to a volunteer writer who isn’t really being harmed? In fact, who’s going to care at all? Docstoc.com isn’t going to sell any copies bc I’m a No Name, so who is damaged? No harm, no foul. And some could argue I might benefit from having my name out there in any form. But funny, I can’t change my annoyed feeling to a feeling of gratitude no matter how hard I try.

    And yes, there is a lengthy process with docstoc.com that I can go through to challenge docstoc.com’s right to sell “Straight Home.” This must not be a new problem for them bc their website has a page explaining what an author must do to challenge their claim to the rights. So yeah, I’m annoyed that I have to give up my time to do what I see is Dialogue’s responsibility. And so I don’t do it bc, like Dialogue’s volunteer lawyers, I don’t have the time, and no one is buying the story anyway. Instead I’ll whine here, calling them out only because I see this as another example of the lack of professionalism that breeds in the MoLit community.

    Now I’ll hush up and go back to volunteering for Irreantum, where we volunteers never ever make mistakes and never ever will. (Sorry if I’ve distracted you from Chris’ point about advances. But I feel better.)

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Lisa, IMO/E, you need to pursue this with both Dialogue and docstoc.com. If at all possible, get an IP lawyer.

      Yeah, it was a mistake you’ll only make once, but there’s no reason to give up the ghost and thus, perpetuate the mistake. “Mormon” and “volunteer” shouldn’t even enter into it.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Oh, I see Kristine below responded. I should read all the comments before I post.

  4. Chris Bigelow says:

    Even though an advance wasn’t offered, I don’t think the case I was talking about would count as work-for-hire, because the publisher would have been paying normal unlimited royalties after publication (assuming publication actually happened). Isn’t work-for-hire more of a set fee not connected to how much the publisher earns on the work, with the author also sacrificing copyright?

    Perhaps it was somewhat small minded of me not to take a gamble on royalties, because I probably would have gotten some and possibly could have actually made decent money, if the book(s) sold well. But I just didn’t want the job enough to play that game with such a tight-fisted publisher, especially since I would’ve been putting aside lucrative hourly work to do it. (Plus, the projects weren’t all that personally interesting to me.)

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      You and William are both right that technically it wouldn’t have been work for hire, based on the definition I just read in the Chicago Manual of Style. (Among other things, if there’s not an employer-employee or specific kind of agency relationship, it’s not work for hire unless the contract specifically says it is.)

      I guess I can see from the publisher’s perspective how they might see this as them approaching an author to suggest an idea that has a better-than-average chance of actually selling. Unfortunately, in such a case it’s all to easy to imagine ways that could end with the writer getting next to nothing for a project that wasn’t his or her idea to begin with. There’s a reason why advances are industry standard — outside LDS publishing, apparently.

  5. Chris Bigelow says:

    Lisa, that’s exactly the kind of comment that I hoped this post would elicit. I’d like to hear more from people on the book side of things, especially about ways in which Mormon publishers don’t meet the professional standards and best practices of national publishers (and many regional publishers).

  6. Kristine says:

    Lisa, it’s actually NOT being ignored. It’s on the agenda for our board meeting next month, and we are trying to figure out how much it would cost us to terminate our contract with EBSCO, the indexing company that in turn sold access to DocStock. That is also a problem for us because they make our content available to academic searchers who wouldn’t necessarily find our archive directly. We pay them, and if anyone buys your story, we’d get 10%, which doesn’t come close to covering our costs. I agree that the DocStock thing is skeevy, but when we signed the contract with EBSCO, they hadn’t yet contracted with DocStock.

    If you didn’t get a signed contract, that’s my fault and no one else’s. I’m sorry. The terms are in the submission guidelines here: https://dialoguejournal.com/submissions/

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      I’m glad to hear it and apologize for venting a little. The venting has taken me from annoyed down to, well, a shrug. (I hate that about my gender.)

      In all fairness, though, I was twice told you’d get back to me about what would be done. And I waited twice. It would’ve been helpful to know that it was on the agenda, but as I said, we’re all busy. You included. I get that. I guess I simply didn’t understand how Dialogue and its board function.

      This whole online stuff isn’t a new issue. I remember when I was signing contracts that said I was only giving first publication rights and then finding the stories online. Technically that was okay with me, except that it hadn’t been in the contract. I brought it up with Stephen (this was a Sunstone thing) and it was changed, but only after people told me I shouldn’t let it bother me. Well, as I said, the part that bothered me wasn’t that Sunstone put anything I’d written online. It was that they assumed they could w/o notifying me.

      I see this as a similar issue. We’re all trying to get the online rules figured out. Have you noticed the AML board hasn’t made Irreantum an online publication? Not even digitized it? I’m certainly not privy to any information about why they haven’t, but I sense that there’s a feeling all this is more hassle than its worth. Dialogue found a snaffu in the digitalization side of it. But they found it because a writer (me) told them. The rest of the community will learn from what Dialogue learns.

      But again, writers have to bring this stuff up.

      And I disagree with you, Kristine, that the fault for the lack of a contract is yours. Oh, maybe you didn’t mail it (maybe you did), but I should’ve been more watchful.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Funny it took a public airing to get you to respond to her, though.

      • Kristine says:

        Moriah, I actually don’t like public airing, so I won’t reproduce my email correspondence with Lisa here, but I’m just petty enough to want to register my feeling that your little jab isn’t entirely fair.

  7. Wm Morris says:

    My understanding of work-for-hire matches Chris’s.

    My short story that Dialogue published is also on DocStoc. It only has 7 views so far (it’s been posted for a year).

    From Dialogue’s website:

    “non-exclusive permission to republish the Work in digital form through use of electronic storage and search capabilities (such as the Internet, or a DVD or other electronic media), or on Dialogue’s website or the website of an archival service, alone or as part of a larger collection”

    Certainly, EBSCO falls under “the website of an archival service.” If EBSCO sold content to DocStoc after the agreement was made did Dialogue receive notification of a change in the terms of service? Or was there language in the original agreement with EBSCO that allowed them to go on and contract with DocStoc?

    And I ask that rhetorically — I trust Kristine and the board to look in to the matter and do whatever possible to rectify things. Rather I ask it because it shows the difficulty with copyright and monetizing content these days. Trying to balance exposure and/or distribution with maintaining control of rights is very difficult. I mean even self-publishers agree to certain terms of service when they upload their books to Amazon or Smashwords or Lulu, etc.

    Here’s what DocStoc has to say: http://www.docstoc.com/faq/#section=copyright&question=Why_is_my_dissertation_or_article_availa

    I would note that DocStoc isn’t claiming copyright — they are claiming distribution rights. “Docstoc has partnered with ProQuest LLC to resell certain articles, for which ProQuests has third-party distribution rights.”

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      I’m getting a headache. copyright. distribution rights. I bought my own story from docstoc.com (it was too pathetic to show zero sales!) and it seems to me at the bottom of it they claimed the copyright. I think, though, I threw it out. maybe I misunderstood what was printed there. Its not worth another 7 bucks to find out. :)

  8. Kristine says:

    Wm–I wasn’t around when these contracts were first signed, and I’m not in the business office, and I’m not a lawyer, so I’m still trying to figure it out myself. I’m reasonably certain, after talking with the lawyers on our board and a couple of other IP types that DocStoc and Dialogue are both on solid legal ground, as far as the contracts go. However, I’d like to be on a footing that feels ethical, and I’d certainly like to be able to explain more clearly to authors what the distribution process will be.

    Stay tuned! :)

  9. Kristine says:

    Oh, and Lisa’s right–there is a little blurb at the bottom that claims DocStoc has an agreement with the copyright holder. That’s clearly not true in this case, but I think Dialogue is somewhat unusual in allowing authors to retain copyright.

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