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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Authors Guild — Help Us!

Don’t Mourn, Organize

Joe Hill, the song tells us, urged working men (people) not to be sad that he had been killed, but, instead to band together, to fight for their rights. Well that is how I feel now as I work on creating multimedia enhancements to go with print books. The whole area of permissions — especially anything that has to do with music, performance, images, or video (in other words all of the multimedia good stuff) is a mine field patrolled by gimlet-eyed lawyers. Yes, ultimately, on some level, they are protecting rights — just as I want someone standing up for me — but in fact, in real, actual, practical fact, they are making certain that multimedia books will be created by corporations that either already own a great deal of material, or can afford whatever they like. The price — in time, in permissions, in risk — is so high that we individual authors either just give up or get squeezed out.
         Unless, that is, we could get someone — the Authors Guild, the CBC, some new organization — to speak for us as a collectivity. There must be some way to create a fair pricing scale so that we can license material that is an enhancement to a book that will have a limited primariliy institutional sale. We need to create a system so a sole author, on his or her own, can be creative, can allow readers of a print book to listen, view, experience related materials without going broke or risking some horrible lawsuit. We authors are the ones who know which extras would work perfectly with our books. But we simply cannot use that knowledge. Sure we can include lists of sites and links. But how satisfying is that? Wouldn’t it be great if a print book came with a parallel site where you could experience that same narrative, that same slice of history or science, with sound, videos, animation — as well as blogs, blackboards, and other connections? The problem is not that we authors cannot create such sites. Rather it is that we have not the slightest chance of making it through the permissions minefield. 
        There is already a Creative Commons movement — for people who make perm free material available. But what if we could create an Author Standard Agreement — where if your book has a first printing of less than X;  there is a standard set of fees for all multimedia uses, with a step ladder of increases should the book (or the site) cross some other boundary of book (or ad) sales. Couldn’t some smart laywer create a template that we offer to rights holders — with an agreement to revisit in X years when Y more books appear first in digital formats? Isn’t there some way for us to stop mourning and to organize?


  1. Loree Griffin Burns says:

    Brilliant question. I have three comments…

    First, in my experience, the sort of allowances you suggest can happen. When securing permissions for images to use in my own books, I routinely ask the copyright holder–including large stock houses and individual professional photographers–for reduced rates given my situation (an author paying out-of-pocket for images to use in a book for young people with a first printing of less than X). Several times reductions have been granted. I think we writers assume that the fees are non-negotiable (I did at first), but that simply isn’t true.

    Second, as a newish author, I’ve often wondered why there is no standard within the publishing industry when it comes to permissions rights and fees. Sometimes it is the publisher’s responsibility. More often it is the author’s. The issues at play are not clearly spelled out for new writers anywhere, not even in the Guidelines of most publishing houses. Talking about this issue, and debating fair standards, would be an invaluable exercise for those of us who write nonfiction for kids … and would lead naturally to the broader discussion you are asking for here.

    Fiinally, the one good thing to come of the limited access I have to multimedia materials that support my books is that I have been forced to get creative. And today’s technology—social networking, (mostly) affordable high-quality digital cameras and recorders, (mostly) affordable software for manipulating digital media—allows me to create useful, complementary content of my own. The quality is not the same, obviously, but it’s a start.

  2. I agree with Loree that we can make a case, and sometimes get lower fees that way. But there really should be a more standard way of approaching this issue — a baseline offer that authors make, keyed to the expected print run. I also agree that the good news is that all of us are forced to be creative — to invent the future. That is wonderful — so long as we compare process and results and develop a shared sense of “best practice” so that we don’t have to keep retracing each other’s steps.