I have seen many horrible contracts. It constantly amazes me how little some writers think of themselves, their work, and their own ability to determine their own course. At Sterling Editing we occasionally offer unpaid and informal contract advice to clients. (We make it clear that this is not our area of expertise, that the client should talk to their agent, talk to their lawyer.) We’re stunned by how often we end up saying: If it were us, we would run, not walk, away from this contract.

I have seen writers make some bad decisions. Many, for example, agree to edit anthologies for a pittance, while their editing ‘partner’ does no work and takes most of the money. (I remember an incredible phone call with a famous and prolific anthologist/packager who tried to persuade me into such a ‘partnership’. Literally incredible: I simply couldn’t believe the terms he was offering. He in turn was astonished that I refused. I was astounded that anyone ever said yes. I went off and made my own deal, and the result was the multiple-award-winning Bending the Landscape series.)

I have seen many decent writers agree to sell long term exclusive rights to their stories for a pitiful sum and miserable pro rata royalty (sometimes no royalty) to said anthologies. The anthologist (sometimes the packager, sometimes the publisher) makes a tidy profit.

I have seen newer writers literally chained for life to small LGBT presses: their contract is not only an NDA, it’s a non-compete, ever. It’s an indemnity. It’s a binding contract of servitude, for a pittance in advance, joke in royalty percentage, and complete loss of the author’s control. (The worst offenders deserve their own blog post, which I’ll get to one day.)

But what takes the biscuit for sheer egregiousness is the standard contract for academic journals, who hold a virtual market monopoly and so can dictate terms.

These contracts are horrifying. Any writers’ organisation would advise against signing them. Most of those organisations would bring grievance proceedings against the publisher.

I’ve only read a couple of academic-journal contracts, and I don’t have either of them in front of me. But here’s what I took from that reading (if anyone has better information please correct me):

  • a scientist does research at an institution largely funded by the taxpayer
  • scientist writes, unpaid, a paper about her research
  • she submits the paper to a prestigious journal
  • the journal’s publisher persuades other scientists, peers, review the paper, unpaid
  • scientist rewrites the paper, unpaid
  • scientist creates illustrations, unpaid
  • publisher sends a contract:
    • publisher charges the scientist for the privilege of being published (this is a not-insignifican sum: four figures–usually paid by the scientist’s institution, the one supported by the taxpayer)
    • publisher owns the copyright, in perpetuity
    • publisher pays zero royalties
    • publisher charges high per-use reprint fees (e.g. $31 per copy); no one–no scientist, no researcher, no student–can have access to this paper without paying for it, forever
    • publisher charges institutions high fees (the highest single annual subcription is, I think, now over $20,000–but, wait, there’s more: the publishers tend to bundle titles, so libraries must subscribe to many to get one)
  • the scientist loses all control over her own work, forever:
    • s/he may not reprint her own work on her blog or website
    • the journal can sell media rights to the scientist’s paper (and keep the proceeds)
    • the journal can republish the paper in any way it likes, forever, and pay the scientist nothing
    • etc.

In other words, the taxpayer pays for the research, the taxpayer pays the journal to publish that research, the taxpayer pays again–via institutional library subscriptions to said journal–to access the knowledge they’ve already paid for.

But academics haven’t had much choice: it’s publish on these terms, or not publish. If you don’t get published, you don’t get tenure. You don’t get the grants. You don’t do the research. We all lose. Except, of course, those journal publishers.

It’s a racket, pure and simple. One such publisher, Reed Elsevier, made a profit last year of 36%. That’s a huge margin. And the taxpayer is funding it. And knowledge and learning are suffering.

I’m happy to tell you that academics are finally stirring in protest against this brazen monopoly. They are organising. Go read this article in the Guardian by Mike Taylor. If you’re an academic of any stripe, go sign the Cost of Knowledge petition. I think we’re witnessing a sea change. I for one am delighted.