As some attendees of The World Horror Convention may know, a few years ago I was ripped off by a British small press publisher for several thousand pounds. This particular individual decided to slightly change the name of his Limited publishing company which—according to the literary agents, lawyers and small claims courts I spoke with—effectively meant that under British company law he could simply ignore any contracts he entered into with authors and editors under the previous company's name.
As a consequence of this minor modification, he simply did not pay the advance due on an anthology of mine he had already published and ceased supplying royalty statements on all the other titles issued by the imprint (even though these volumes were still being openly distributed on both sides of the Atlantic through dealers and genre bookstores). My attempts to get any kind of recompense through Companies House and the county court not only failed, but I ended up having to pay his costs—despite the fact that he owed me money! So much for the British legal system.
However, because I was the editor, I decided to honor the contracts with the various authors who had contributed to the anthology and pay their fees out of my own pocket. Just because I had been duped, I did not see why the writers should suffer along with me. As it turned out, the individual concerned thereafter quickly left the country (no doubt before his other creditors caught up with him) and, to add insult to injury, he sold off most of his stock of books—including the titles he had never paid me for—to a British book dealer at a bargain price. To be fair, that dealer (an old friend) has attempted to make some reparation to me—despite the fact that he has absolutely no legal obligation to do so.
The whole sorry affair got me thinking. Each year I write an "opinion piece" at the end of my annual survey in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror looking at the state of the genre. Over the past few years, I had noticed that problems with publishers had been increasing as new technologies were steadily introduced. It seemed like as good a time as any to give a warning to new and upcoming writers as well as making a plea to some editors and imprints for more "Integrity in Publishing".
Consequently, I wrote a personal analysis and, as usual, sent it off to my publisher when I delivered the rest of the book. Around the same time, I became aware of various controversies on the Internet and in magazines surrounding such small press publishers as Imaginary Worlds and Chaosium. Suddenly my "editorial" was now even more relevant than when I had originally written it. I felt proud that this year's book would once again be addressing a genuine concern in the horror publishing field. But my feeling of elation did not last for long.
Two months later, I received a letter from my editor stating that they were "reluctant" to set the pages of my editorial comments "in their current form". As this had never happened before—and we had run opinion pieces in previous volumes about the threat of electronic publishing, the merit of so-called "Extreme Horror", the use of block voting in awards and other potentially controversial topics without any comment—I have to admit that I was a bit taken aback. I immediately e-mailed my editor and asked her to tell me specifically what she objected to in the text. I would then take a look and see what I could do to address her concerns.
I never received a reply. However, I next heard from my agent, who informed me that my editor was "not in a mood to be mollified". Things had apparently got out of control without me realizing it! As a result, I ended up exchanging faxes and phone calls with my agent to see what I could do to save the situation. I was told that my editor had "taken a far deeper upset about the material" than we had originally thought, and that I "may need to rebuild" my relationship with her. This was all the more baffling to me as I had still not been told what was objectionable about the piece.
Cover by Les Edwards
In the end I was given no choice. My publisher would cut the offending pages entirely. We could either have a rather abrupt ending to the Introduction or else I would have to come up with a new closing. So much for my plea for "integrity". Reluctantly, I chose to write a new "end thought" for the book.
Yet once again this got me thinking. Obviously there was something in my piece which had struck a nerve with my publisher. And for any writer, that is exactly the kind of response you are always hoping to achieve with this kind of critical essay. Perhaps I had something worthwhile to say after all . . .?
So I've decided to let you be the judge. Here is my original opinion piece, updated but otherwise much the same as it was submitted with the twelfth volume of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror. Whether you agree with my opinions or not, I hope that it will at least provoke some kind of a reaction; and if just one up-and-coming author can benefit from my experience, or if an editor or publisher out there stops and thinks a little more about how they treat their writers, then at least I will feel that I have achieved something.
Integrity. It is not a word you hear much these days. Yet it has always been the cornerstone to how I have tried to live my life and my career.
Originally published in World Horror Convention 2004 souvenir book.
Regrettably, I learned very early on that there were plenty of other people out there—even in the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres—who had far fewer scruples than I did.
No sooner had I started out in this field in the early 1970s than the editor of a very attractive American small press magazine—nowadays known for his annual showcase of fantasy artwork—not only refused to pay me (and others) for the work of ours he had published, but would not even send us copies of the magazine, thereby forcing us to purchase our own labor. Then there was the well-known specialist dealer from America who enthusiastically took 100 copies of the first issue of a small press magazine I co-edited and never bothered to pay for them, thereby jeopardizing the future of that fledgling title. Or the book publisher who took out a number of advertisements in a film magazine I published and then made no attempt to pay for them.
It would be nice to think that this kind of selfish and avaricious behavior was confined to the past, but unfortunately that is not so. Only a few years ago I discovered through friends that a publisher I had worked for, and who I liked and respected a great deal, was attempting to sell off all the working notes and correspondence to a very successful book I had edited for them—including the private addresses of a number of prestigious contributors—without any recourse to me. When I objected to their actions (mostly on behalf of those contributors), they simply did not understand why I was upset and it took the threat of legal action to make them return the material that was rightfully mine in the first place.
More recently, another small press imprint, which I helped to set up and edited a number of titles for, published an anthology of mine and then refused to pay the advance agreed in the contract. Even though I had already paid the contributors out of my own pocket—their agreements were with me, after all—this publisher changed the name of his company without revealing his debts, ripped off a few more people and then left the country owing unpaid royalties and unreturned artwork rather than face up to his legal and moral responsibilities. And, before he fled, he sold off his stock at a knock-down price to a book dealer rather than offer it to the authors he had cheated.
And it is not just small presses which behave in this manner. Some years ago myself and another writer had to use the weight of The Society of Authors and the threat of a law suit to regain the rights to a book which a publisher refused to pay royalties on. More recently, another publisher I have done a great deal of work for attempted to arbitrarily (but without malice) insert a clause into their contract that would give them all electronic rights to the fiction without ever having to pay for them, while another insisted that we simply steal the titles of other authors' books for a number of volumes in their reprint series.
Then there are the foreign publishers who print the books but refuse to send you any copies, the American book chain who reprint your work in their own editions but fail to include them in the royalty statements, or even the British publishers who will sell your work on to other imprints but never pay you a penny for those editions. I admit that individually, some of these complaints are rather minor, but taken together they add up to a depressing catalogue of greed and incompetence that need never to have occurred in the first place. I have been working in this field professionally for more than fifteen years and I have a very good literary agent, yet I am still forced to fight against every injustice and sleight. It not only costs me precious time and energy, but often a great deal of money attempting to obtain these fundamental rights for both myself and the writers who I work with.
Unfortunately, not all those writers are quite so honorable either. Early in my editing career I was accused (unjustly, in my opinion) of not using enough female authors in my anthologies. To redress this perceived imbalance, a few years ago I came up with the concept of a vampire anthology written entirely by women. After the book was completed, and while I was preparing the manuscript for delivery, I received a submission from a new woman writer that I thought was so exceptional—especially for a first-time story—that I decided to squeeze it into the book at the last minute and pay the advance out of my small editorial fee (something I've done far too many times in the past).
As I pride myself as an editor who tries to encourage new talent in the genre, I subsequently reprinted the same story in my annual Best New Horror anthology, as did Ellen Datlow in her own "Year's Best" volume.
Only last year I learned that this new female writer was, in fact, a man. To make matters worse, he was a close friend of mine whose work I had published on many occasions. He had set up a complicated smokescreen of fake addresses and contact details simply so that he could deceive his way into the book.
When I discovered this fakery, I was extremely upset. By his greedy and thoughtless actions he had irreparably compromised my anthology. I felt betrayed. He could not understand why I was so angry. I asked for a series of undertakings that would go some way towards reparation. He became belligerent and, despite repeated promises, has never supplied any of the documentation I requested. As a result, it will be a long time before I ever work with this individual again.
Amongst those authors who will also not be seeing their stories in my books anytime soon is a well-known writer of "extreme horror" who accused me of inadvertently revealing his whereabouts to a fundamentalist church that was stalking him. As a result, he would leave obscene messages on my answering machine, despite my apology and the promise to change the offending story notes in subsequent printings (which I did). Then there was the writer who phoned me up and told me I was a crook for not paying the advance on a story of his I had used in an anthology.
Another of the things I pride myself on is the fact that I pay my advances on time, or even earlier when I can or if financial hardship is involved. In this case the contract stipulated that payment was upon publication. The author had received his contributor's copies a couple of months before the official publication date and had swiftly come to the conclusion that I was trying to rip him off. A simple inquiry would have sufficed, rather than the vitriol that poured down the transatlantic phone line before I hung up on him.
Integrity. No, not a word you hear much in this business. But despite the preceding list of abuses and errors, by far the majority of people my occupation brings me into contact with are honest and reliable. It would be difficult for me to continue if they were not. And I hope that the fact that I work repeatedly with many of the same authors—and many of the biggest names in the genre—means that they at least trust me enough to keep coming back.
It is hard enough to produce an anthology: to read all the submissions and edit the stories; to draw up the contracts and make sure everyone is paid as quickly as possible; to fight over the quality of the covers or the often ludicrous changes made to the text; to send out copies of each and every edition to contributors, and to ensure that they receive a fair royalty so that everyone can feel that they are sharing in the success of a project.
It seems to me that, all too often, these basic considerations are being ignored or forgotten in the rush by some unscrupulous publishers and editors who are more interested in getting the product out there instead of caring about how that product—and the people who created it—are treated. And with the growing number of new formats and outlets for fiction these days, the problem will surely only grow worse.
The fantasy genre is a relatively small field. Everyone knows everybody else, either through correspondence or direct contact. And if someone is intent on making money or personal gain at the expense of others, then that information travels fast.
So before anyone thinks about setting up their own publishing imprint or editing their own anthology, all I ask is that they first reflect upon whether their business practices and aspirations are totally ethical. That they make sure that before undertaking any new project, they have the financial backing and the infrastructure in place to deliver exactly what they promise.
In short, that they treat the people they work with in exactly the same manner that they would wish to be treated themselves. If everybody did that, then this genre—and life in general—would only be all the better for it.
Copyright © Stephen Jones 2004. All rights reserved.