Over recent weeks I have noticed some discourse on the topic of For The Love (FTL) markets in social media sites – particularly whether these markets are exploitative or not. As usual, there's never a simple analysis on topics such as this. I can't resist expressing my views, and learnings.
There are two key parties in this discussion: authors and publishers, both groups representing the 'low' end of publishing in the market topology. I don't mean 'low' in a derogatory sense, I am talking about relative experience, income capability and earned respect generally in the industry. We all have to start somewhere, and that 'somewhere' is usually fairly low on the ladder to success.
Most authors have published their early work in FTL markets. It may have begun with the High School Newspaper, or (in the pre-Internet days), the Roneo'd fanzine or newsletter distributed among friends and local communities. In modern terms, the blog, the wiki, or equivalent. Authors need to cut their teeth. In the light of the marketing imperative, it is also important to develop a decent-sized bibliography, the CV equivalent of writing. It is important to note that commentators shouldn't apply the broadbrush ethic of 'work equates to being paid' because it does not apply at the early stages of a writer's career. In fact, the point when an author chooses to depart from the FTL market is a milestone point in the career, not the starting point.
Another consideration when it comes to early careers for authors is that not all the material they produce are worthy of remuneration. It is not uncommon for authors to spend a lot of energy submitting stories to high-paying markets, and as they get exhausted, the submissions get redirected to semi-pro, and finally slide down the scale to FTL. This isn't in any way wrong – it is reflective of the quality of the product, and the author gets the story out into a market, any market, which is better than nothing. It is reflective of the author's personal development.
However, authors can't just treat this dynamic as a simple, straightforward process. It isn't. They must be wary of inequity, whether it be deliberate or intentional. Contracts and terms need to be scrutinized; the market has to be assessed to make sure there isn't any unscrupulous behavior. The author also needs to understand the legal ramifications of the act of publishing itself – the best example being that regardless of the market, First Publishing Rights has been exercised when a piece of fiction is published, and it can never be recycled. Setting aside criminal behavior, the most important element to look for when entering on contract with an FTL market, is what happens to revenue from the publication. It makes all the difference. Let's look at some examples, with my personal commentary:
- The market is online and free to the public, and makes no income. In this case, it is straightforward, safe to publish if the author wants to. In general terms, there can't be any significant non-criminal traps here.
- The market is online and free to the public, but makes some money (donations, merchandizing). If the income is meager, the publisher is unlikely to even cover their own costs of production. Again, it is generally safe to publish.
- The market is a print magazine and/or paid online zine, and they use their income to cover production costs – profit is meager, if it exists at all. In this situation the author has to be careful. I believe in this case it is alright to be FTL but it should not be too difficult for the publisher to offer a free copy of the magazine (or if paid online, some sort of subscription arrangement). The terms of the contract should allow the author to be able to resell their story in a reasonable timeframe – 6 months to a year following first publication.
- The market is a print anthology and/or ebook anthology. This one needs to be scrutinized carefully. Very carefully. I don't necessarily have a problem with zero payment for stories, but a royalty arrangement IS important. Yes, very small publishers need to recoup their investment (which often is a major encumbrance for them) but this should never be an excuse to exclude them from offering royalties or other profit-sharing arrangements, post overheads. Authors should be wary of zero payments and zero royalties. If the anthology goes viral, would you, as a contributing author, be happy with nix? Also, this needs to be in contract, not verbal – it doesn't matter how much you like or befriended the said publisher.
- The market is for large pieces of work, novels, novellas – print and/or ebook. This one is the easiest situation of all – publishers must offer a sensible, fair royalty deal. At the very least. Yes, small publishers may have limited capability to market, and may not make print runs (instead using POD). Authors signing contracts with these publishers are generally looking for their first work to be exposed to the reader public, more focused on quality and integrity of their work – building their CV, than remuneration, but they must get their fair share of the profits if the book sells well, or even if it sells badly.
So there we have it. Authors contributing to FTL markets is a natural part of a writing career, but it only goes so far. When you are ready, let them go except for charity/favor arrangements. Also, when involved with FTL markets, do it right – ensure that the market treats you with respect, which, as outlined above, does not cost an honest publisher much at all.