Sometimes being an publisher and editor is like being a hall monitor in a middle school. I’d say it was like herding cats, cliché aside, I’ve learned that you CAN herd a cat if you offer the right incentives. Our cat, for instance, is an indoor cat. She loves going outside, but knows she doesn’t get to go there unescorted and WE decide when it’s time to go back in. Simple rules.
But this isn’t about my cat. It’s about trying to keep order in the hallways among groups of individuals who are easily distracted by the publishing process.
Oh my, did I just paint with a broad brush (yet another cliché)? Maybe, but think about the hall monitor metaphor. You have stragglers, scufflers, pranksters, princes and princesses who need to be prodded to class, and all you, as hall monitor, are trying to do is preserve order.
Recently, an author received the first copies of her chapbook. Less than a week after they arrived, she emailed to ask whether including poems used in her chapbook in a full length later this same year would violate her contract.
The truth is, the average Main Street Rag chapbook sells about 250-300 total copies in the first 6 months to a year—the primary selling time. When you take into account time investment and materials, our break-even point ranges between 150 and 200 sales—depending on how and where copies are sold. But we don’t want to just break even and 50 sales is not a very wide profit margin. So, as a publisher, I try to ensure our share by asking authors to wait at least 9 months before releasing another book.
But this author’s request was slightly different and it was the fifth time in the past year that I’ve had a similar request: An author wanted to know if it was okay to include a large portion of a book I had just published in another book. I even had one well-known local author take more than half of a full length book and combine it in a Best Of collection with another publisher. Neither asked if there was a contractual conflict and although I had legal grounds to go after him and the other publisher, I did not.
There have been multiple cases of this kind of activity over the years and I have never gone after anyone or prevented authors from re-using their own work, but as hall monitor, let me tell readers what I’ve told a few of my authors when they asked for permission to reprint the same material in a new format.
I tell them they are welcome to do so. If their MSR book did not meet costs, I may ask for a small buyout ($2/book). I also ask them this question: If you bought a book of poetry from an author whose work you liked enough to buy his or her second book, but discovered that more than half of the poems included in the NEW book were also in the first book, what would you do? You might tell others so they didn’t spend twice the money on a product that was much of the same thing. You might also be wary of the next book this author tried to promote to you and not buy it.
If we are writers, creators of literature, don’t you think we owe it to potential readers to offer something fresh when we are asking them to spend money? Sure, we can keep re-packaging and selling old stuff in a new wrapper—musicians did it all the time (when they could get away with it)—but if we want to expand our readership, it might not be a bad idea to expand and grow as authors as well.
That’s this week’s tip from your friendly neighborhood literary hall monitor.