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The Legal Side of Writing for Anthologies

Flickr Creative Commons: Lorenzo Scheda
Flickr Creative Commons: Lorenzo Scheda

Anthologies offer writers an excellent platform for shorter works and create opportunities for reader cross-pollination. When managed and published properly, anthologies have many benefits and relatively few drawbacks for authors. However, authors do need to ensure–before submitting or signing a contract–that the anthology publisher is offering industry-standard contract terms and proper legal protection for the contributing authors and their works.

Today, we’ll review a few of the legal traps and pitfalls authors should beware (and avoid) when contributing work to an anthology:

1.   Contracts Are Not Optional.

Every anthology should use a professional, written publishing contract (or release) containing industry-standard terms for anthology publication. If the publisher is taking only non-exclusive rights, and not limiting the author’s right to reprint and re-use the work in any way, a simple release will often suffice, but even this should be in writing. (Note: The author should always retain the copyright and subsidiary rights to the work, as well as the right to re-publish in other contexts. Also, the author should never have to pay the publisher any money or be required to purchase copies of the finished anthology.)

Anthology contracts and releases (sometimes titled “Permission to (Re)Print”) are generally shorter than contracts for book-length works, but they still need to address the relevant legal issues. Also, the contract (or release) must be in writing—emails documenting the parties’ “understanding” are not sufficient and often won’t stand up in court.

2.   Never Sign Away Copyright to the Work.

Anthology publishers do NOT need, and should not ask for, ownership of copyright in the individual works that make up the anthology.

Anthology publishers need only a limited license to publish the contributed works as part of the anthology – and the contract should expressly limit the publisher’s use of the work to its inclusion in the relevant anthology or collective work.

If the author transfers copyright to the anthology publisher, the author no longer owns the work and cannot use or publish it in other contexts (without permission, which the publisher then has the legal right to withhold at will). Most anthology publishers don’t try to take ownership of the contributors’ works; don’t submit to anthologies that do.

One additional note: some anthology contracts state that the publisher owns the copyright on the anthology as a collective work. This is different from ownership of the individual stories. Anthologies actually involve two separate types of copyrights: 

(1)       the authors’ copyrights in their individual stories, and

(2)       the “collective work” copyright, which includes only revisions, editing, and/or compilation (e.g., the selection of the stories that went into the anthology) – but not the content of the individual contributions.

“Collective work” copyright is a separate, lesser form that essentially exists to ensure that no one can copy and sell the anthology without the publisher’s permission. Many anthology contracts contain clear copyright language stating that the author retains the sole, individual copyright on his or her contribution, and the publisher owns only the “collective work” copyright (if any) which attaches to the anthology as a whole. Some contracts don’t mention collective work copyright; this is fine, as long as the contract is clear about the author retaining ownership of his or her contribution.

3.   Know Where the Money Is Going.

Some anthologies pay participating authors for their contributions, either on a flat fee basis or by means of a royalty share. Other anthologies don’t compensate contributing authors financially; however, many non-paying anthologies donate the sales proceeds to charity or to the nonprofit organization that sponsored the publication.

There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with contributing works to anthologies that don’t pay fees or royalties, as long as you (the contributing author) understand and agree with the way the anthology’s profits will be handled. As long as the contract (or your communications with the publisher or sponsor) describes where the money is going—and you trust the publisher to follow through—the decision whether or not to contribute a story to a non-royalty-bearing anthology is a business decision for the author.

4.  Submit Only to Reputable Anthologies.

Some anthologies have strong professional reputations, and offer broad exposure. Both traditionally-published and self-published anthologies (including those released by groups of collaborating author-publishers) have enjoyed fantastic success, when published and marketed in a professional manner.

Before submitting your work or signing a contract for anthology publication, consider the experience level and reputation of the publisher (or anthology sponsor), the editor (if one is named), the terms of the publishing contract, and all other relevant aspects of the deal. Select anthologies that match your plans for your work and also offer appropriate contract terms.

Remember: it’s perfectly acceptable to ask to review the contract or release before you make a commitment.

5.  Beware of Mandatory Purchase and Marketing Requirements.

Most anthologies don’t require participating authors to purchase copies of the finished work or mandate author participation in marketing activities. Although many authors choose to purchase copies and to help with marketing for the finished work, these should be the author’s choice—and not required by contract.

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These aren’t the only legal issues to watch for in anthology contracts; we’ll look at several more when I return for another post in September. 

In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your anthology experiences – have you published in this format? If not, would you consider it? And if you have published this way, would you do it again?

About Susan Spann [1]

Susan Spann [2] writes the Hiro Hattori Novels (Shinobi Mysteries) featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo, who solve mysteries set in medieval Japan. Her first novel, Claws of the Cat [3]: A Shinobi Mystery (Minotaur, 2013) was a Library Journal mystery debut of the month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. Her fourth Hiro Hattori novel, The Ninja’s Daughter [4], releases August 2, 2016 from Seventh Street Books. Susan is the 2015 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year, and also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on business and publishing law. She founded and curates the Twitter hashtag #PubLaw (for Writers), where she answers questions and provides information about publishing business and legal issues. When not writing or representing clients, Susan enjoys traditional archery, reading fiction and nonfiction, and raising seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. She lives outside Sacramento, California, but you can find her online at http://www.SusanSpann.com [2], on Twitter (@SusanSpann [5]), or on Facebook/SusanSpannBooks [6].