Brought to book

A SMALL but vociferous meeting took place at the Society of Authors (SoA) on 23 February. All there were members of the children's non-fiction email network, NibWeb, co-sponsored by the NUJ and the Society - and our aim was to take the first steps towards improving our lot.

Children's non-fiction is often written for flat fees, on all-rights contracts. The complaints are many and various: not enough money; loss of copyright; loss of moral rights leading to outrageous assaults on copy (introducing mistakes and horrible grammar); slow payment; non-payment; asking writers to accept "total liability" clauses (the individual carries all financial responsibility for legal action, the publisher none); asking writers to agree never to write a competing work for another publisher (putting yourself out of work)... I could go on, and the meeting did.

But what to do? Received wisdom is that there are massed ranks of teachers out there with local authority salaries, all raring to go and write books for even fewer peanuts than the ones we get. This probably isn't true: writing for children means producing small, fact-dense, easy-to-read paragraphs, linking text and illustrations and photos is a particular skill - but the fear remains.

We're still at an early stage, but we did conclude that we must try encourage individuals to negotiate with publishers with publishers for:

  • a fair rate for the amount of work we do - be this royalty payments in some cases, flat fees per 1000 words in others, or flat fees that represent the amount of time taken to do a job and skills required (often unrelated to the number of words);
  • we should try to get extra money for the "extras" that publishers try to slip in after we've agreed to do the work - producing detailed plans well in advance of the book, writing captions, reading "edited" copy and extracting introduced errors, ditto proofs... and more besides;
  • agreeing licenses for specified uses rather than selling all rights, and getting money for foreign editions and reprints;
  • putting a stop to "total liability" and "no competing works" clauses.

Jo Hodder, Assistant General Secretary at the SoA, and a NibWeb moderator, is going to put together a Quick Guide to writers of children's non-fiction (to join the SoA's other splendid Quick Guides). Kate Pool, also of SoA, has produced guidance to "Print on Demand" contracts. And NibWeb will assemble a best practice guide for all with an interest in this kind of publishing.

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