In praise of SFWA's Grievance Committee

I just put a check in the bank for money I never thought I'd see, and it's thanks to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grievance Committee.

Back in Feb 2009, an editor I like asked me to write a short-short story for a series she was putting together for one of the big, slick science magazines. I liked the market, the editor and the premise, so I wrote a piece and turned it in. Everyone at the publishing house was enthusiastic about it, and they sent me a contract, asking me to rush it in so that they could get it into the next issue.

But the contract was awful. It asked for really dumb rights, like the right to make movies and action figures and other stuff from my story, and they weren't paying nearly enough for that sort of thing. It also had all kinds of indemnity in it -- by signing it, I was promising that I'd pay off anyone who claimed I broke any law in any country in which the magazine had assets (lots of countries!).

This isn't that unusual -- but what happened next was. I told them I wouldn't sign over anything except print rights, and that I wanted the indemnity revised so that I was only guaranteeing that I wouldn't break US laws, and that I would only indemnify them for finally sustained damages (that is, after a trial and appeal). This is totally standard, something I've done with publishing companies like the New York Times, Conde Nast, Time Warner, Nature, etc.

The magazine was willing to take out the rights grab, but they refused to negotiate on the indemnity. Stonewalled. They didn't answer emails -- months and months of emails. When I heard back from the in-house editor, he just said that the CEO wasn't willing to change this language, ever, and tough. He wouldn't answer any questions about it -- any queries were met with months' more silence.

What's worse, I'd already done the work, and I wasn't getting paid for it. It may seem dumb to write work on spec without seeing the contract, but in practice, this is how it often works. Contracts are pretty standard, and editors work on short deadlines, while contracts departments often seem to exist in their own rarified and plodding universe. I've often written a story, had it published, gotten paid for it, and then gotten the contract for it. It's a dumb and backwards way of doing things, but that's how it goes sometimes. But it sure made me feel like a sucker and an idiot as email after email disappeared into a black hole. They'd asked me to do work, I'd done it to their satisfaction, and now they wanted me to swallow a bowl of crap before they'd pay me for it. It felt awful, a sense of powerlessness and anger.

Finally, I turned to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grievance Committe. John E Johnson III and Michael Capobianco, two of the committee's members, asked me for a complete history of all my interactions with the magazine (I'd kept good records). They went to work for me, calling and emailing the editor and his boss. In the end, the magazine wouldn't negotiate the contract, but they did send me half the money (I've just cashed the check) as a kill-fee.

And that's the point of this post. Many people ask what the point of SFWA is; I'm guilty of wondering this at times myself. But here is something that SFWA does really well: back up individual writers with the collective might of the organization and the tenacity of its volunteers. I can't thank Michael and John and Griefcom enough. John was kind enough to supply this quote: "Cory Doctorow deserves credit himself. By presenting us with a legitimate grievance, by having kept proper documentation, and by displaying great patience, Cory made it possible for Griefcom to resolve this matter satisfactorily." - John E. Johnston III, Grievance Committee Chair, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America

I still can't figure out what the magazine's angle was here. They're out my killfee, they never got to print the story, they had to pay a leading artist to produce some really stellar art for the piece that they'll never get to use, all because they didn't want to make a totally reasonable, standard change to their contract. Who can comprehend the irrational mysteries of giant media companies?

The lesson is: keep good records, get the contract before you do the work, and when you get the shaft, call SFWA.

Griefcom and You



  1. “Griefcom” is either the awesomest name or a really bad MMO. Glad it (more or less) worked out.

  2. I’ve always believed that the difference between a hobby and a business is that one keeps more accurate records. Congrats on getting at least half your going rate….

  3. I’m liking the name “Griefcom” myself. It calls up images of a general pounding his fist into his palm, and angrily saying “that magazine has stonewalled us for the last time! Go to Griefcom 5!” Flurry of activity from peons, guided lawyer missles, et cetra.

  4. Sorry, a condition of the killfee was not to name the magazine (naming and shaming being the thing you do *after* they refuse to pay you the fee).

    1. OMG, Cory!

      you broke the first rule of Griefcom!

      “If you encounter anyone who says something like “Griefcom never does anything because I never hear about anything Griefcom does,” point out to him that this is because he’s not supposed to ever hear about anything Griefcom does.”

      (and you broke the second rule too…)

  5. Having been in a similar ‘no contract, no pay’ situation myself I will simply add this. You have provided work in good faith, the contract was not supplied by the party requiring your work, they used your work. The contract is not acceptable but they used your work for which you ‘settled’ for 50% of the agreed rate.

    Sounds like you have been royally screwed over and publicly displayed your acceptance of a rate at 50% what is asked. Not a good negotiating stance.

    Liking someone and getting half of what has been agreed upon soon leads to dislike. For the benefit of others it would be useful to know which company believes that they are so superior they are able to impose draconian, lack of faith, contractual terms. That way we can all vote with our wallets by not buying their magazine.

    1. You misunderstand. They never published the work. I’ve been paid and I still have first publication rights for the story. I’ll update the post to clarify this.

    2. Further to this, if they’d *published* the story, I’d have been in a much stronger negotiating position, since they’d be vulnerable to substantial statutory damages for using my work without a license to do so.

      This is why I tend to be pretty laid back when I’ve got an editor hot and heavy on a deadline while contracts is dragging their feet. If the work goes into production, they’re sinking a lot of money into it (typesetting, editing, setup, art) and they’ll have to abandon that investment if they can’t come to an agreement with me on contracts. It’s just about the best negotiating position to be in, usually.

  6. After ten years involved with the magazine editing/writing/freelancing for lifestyle/sports magazines, I’m glad to see that at least the SF writers have a good grievance committee.
    When I was on the editorial side, I despaired along with my writers at the length of time it took for them to get paid and the draconian aspect of the contracts.
    After 8 years as an editor (and suffering through huge staff cuts as we were bought by larger and larger media corporations) I went to the freelance side of things and saw that things had gotten worse. Hideously late payments, awful contracts, and terrified editors are the norm. Journalism and writing used to be great professions. These days I’ll stick to my blog and a different career.

  7. As an editor who has to deal with a fairly concrete contract for freelancers, I know this scenario well. Our contract sounds nowhere near as horrible as this, but the indemnity has caused concern for a number of writers.

    Because the concern was brought to the attention of the execs enough, they had the lawyers (bore) change the wording so now it’s clear that if we induce libelous junk into the story, the writer is NOT liable. That meaning was there previously, but filled with legalese.

    Glad you got some cash, though. The editors want copy to be great – and want to use the best possible writers for the assignments – but “legal” and the executives that don’t understand any component of the craft of writing, editing and publishing ruin in more often than not.

  8. Yeah, but don’t you have to be a dues paying member of the SFWA before you can take advantage of their might? And to be able to do that, you have to have published some stories (or a novel) to a handful of exclusive publications who are themselves SFWA members.
    Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all saying this is a bad thing! I’m just saying, probably 99% of us reading this article who write SF don’t have the luxury of qualifying for membership. And I’m sure not got lack of will, just a lack of having work accepted in any of that short list of proper publications. :(

  9. Well, that certainly is a win for you and a loss for their readership. Having lost a significant amount due to a late arriving contract that also proved to be onerous I no longer deliver until I have one signed sealed and delivered. If more people stood their ground like this then there would be less instances like that you and others have experienced. We are expected to deliver but would get short shrift were we to say “Let me have your product and I will pay you later”.

    Perhaps we can add “The contract is in the post” to the list of the worlds greatest lies… apparently there are more than three…

  10. Cory- just out of curiosity, do you use any special tools for your record keeping? I’ve been looking at a bunch of different tools and I really like Evernote (first read about it in a scanner review that Mark posted). I’ve very close to committing to Evernote but I’m nervous trusting a third party with all my stuff for obvious reasons.

    1. I have a couple different systems.

      First: I file all my email, sent and received, in folders.

      Second: I keep track of all the email I’m expecting, in a text file, in this format:

      WAITING EMAIL Fred on late payment 1/1/10 2/12/10 3/13/10

      (the same file also has all the calls and parcels I’m waiting for, I review it once a day and see if anyone is particularly overdue and send a followup, adding the date to the end of the line; when I get an email, I delete the line)

      Third: I have an accounts spreadsheet that lists all my invoices and the date they’ve been paid. I sort it so that unpaid invoices are at the top, by order of issue-date.

      1. Considering that I don’t have any system beyond whatever Gmail collates for me, I’ll be stealing yours. Different kind of work, but I think it’ll be just as useful to me as it is to you. BoingBoing often brings up organization tips, and I really enjoy those.

  11. Cory, since you have written the story and been paid for it, can we possibly scheme you into releasing it free to the world under CC? *bats eyelashes*

  12. “get the contract before you do the work”

    Good advice. I’m glad you got (at least) half of what you were owed; it’s unfortunate that you wasted time and experienced irritation because of this publisher.

    I had a client who took advantage of me the first time around. When he returned, I had a one page agreement for him to sign. He balked, then said that he would (humor me and) sign the contract, “but had no intention of honoring it, because what was I going to do, sue him?”

    It is rare to encounter a person who expresses such contempt for the rights of others. Naturally, I did no further work work for him. But such are some of the people you run into in this great big world: completely unreasonable.

  13. Are you not concerned about ever doing work for this magazine again? It’s easier when you’re an established writer to do this but wouldn’t it be risky for a writer just starting their career? A lot of the time it feels like you have no choice but to sign their contracts…just saying.

  14. “I still can’t figure out what the magazine’s angle was here. They’re out my killfee, they never got to print the story, they had to pay a leading artist to produce some really stellar art for the piece that they’ll never get to use, all because they didn’t want to make a totally reasonable, standard change to their contract.”

    “the CEO wasn’t willing to change this language, ever, and tough”

    If the organization is big enough, I think the CEO is more committed to alpha-dominance than to economy. Been this way ever since I read Jane Goodall’s _Through a Window_ back-to-back with John A. Byrne’s _Chainsaw: The Notorious Career of Al Dunlap in the Era of Profit-At-Any-Price _, and saw the massive parallels.

  15. Contracts like this seem to be cropping up in other fields. I’m not a writer- I’m an effects guy for movies and commercials, but occasionally, as we crew members work away on set, someone from the agency or production company will be there with a video camera, documenting what we’re doing. I generally smile and cooperate, if it doesn’t slow me down, but we’ve started seeing a new model release that we’re asked to sign at the end of the videotaping. And it is ALL encompassing- “without compensation, your image can be altered, sold, transferred to any other media or company, etc”. And nowadays I mark it up before I sign in- to the effect of, “My image may only be used in the specific promotion of this project. My image is not to be sold for stock footage or used in any other circumstance.” In other words, I don’t want to be seen in a commercial in two years, promoting something I’m not behind. Anyway, point being, that lawyers writing these contracts now seem to be throwing everything they can in favor of their clients, just to see what sticks. In my case, it just means that I may not end up in the “Making of…” extras. Which I wasn’t getting paid for anyway. But I feel for those creative people who rely on fair contracts to make a living.

    1. Those contracts would enable them to use computer generated images without compensation.

      We are very close to generating and animating such without the audience being able to tell it’s not the real actor.

      Every person who creates content should BEWARE such contracts.

      1. We’re definitely close. But at this point, it’s a thousand times cheaper and faster to hire a meat actor, than spend hundreds of hours tweaking up a computer image. But Moore’s law will take care of that in a few years. And then new laws will have to deal with that. (Hoping for wisdom and justice there, as part of a family of actors! ;)

  16. I don’t know John E Johnson III, but I do know Michael Capobianco from a thing where we were ostensibly on opposite sides of a matter. What I remember was what a stand-up guy he was under the most difficult circumstance, unflappable and of he highest moral character. I’m glad to see he’s still active in SFWA, and that he’s still adding value wherever he goes.

  17. In the mid-90’s I got involved in a far-out genre-stretching rock and roll jam session in a recording studio that featured a 50-50 mix of some rather straightforward songs I had written and some serious art rock with spoken word over it. When I had started the project it was all under my control, but I made the mistake of involving the guitar player of a band I had started but quit because he took it over and ran it like a dictator. He’d “seen the light” and begged for forgiveness and wanted to work together again…and hey, his new manager was a maverick genius producer who could get us time in a real studio, could we let him in on it? I shrugged and said sure. BIG mistake. After the recording session, for which the guy had turned up hours late and stoned out of his mind, he showed me a contract that he claimed was “standard” and the same one he used for all “HIS” acts (my hackles rose instantly). It was an amateurishly drawn up cut-and-paste of various music industry riders that contradicted itself, made little sense, and suggested I sign over ALL rights to the material to him IN PERPETUITY. He said, “Hey, go ahead and have your lawyer look this over.” I did; my lawyer pulled out a cross and holy water and a necklace made of garlic and screamed “DO NOT sign this as-is!!” He did what all professional lawyers do — drew up and submitted a counter-offer. Next I got screaming phone calls from both the producer and the ex-friend telling me I was “insane” and “How DARE I question the way they do business!!” And so, the tapes remain in producer guys desk drawer, where they shall forevermore.

  18. I’ll echo what Cory says about SFWA’s Griefcom. I’ve used them several times in the past to extract payment from foreign language magazine publishers.
    Douglas Smith

  19. I second the notion of this cropping up elsewhere. I was intending to submit something to one of the InnoCentive Challenges ( recently, however I first went through the click-to-sign “contract” you have to approve to see the challenge in detail, and AFAICT (not being a lawyer) you take responsibility for warranting that they can practise your submission without violating anyone’s IP anywhere in the world.

    As in Cory’s case, it’s one thing to warrant that you are not *aware* of any conflicting IP, but there’s no way in hell I’m taking personal responsibility if someone in Texas or Botswana or Sweden or wherever makes some claim I’ve never heard of. And I suspect most of the Solvers don’t even read that part. Again, not a lawyer, but it seems to me that by submitting an idea to a competition for a few thousand dollars, you could risk personal bankruptcy if the company puts the idea to work and gets sued by some patent troll. I have done some contracts with industry before, and this sort of thing seems standard in company-to-company agreements, and may just have been ported over without consideration for the impact it could have on those of us who do not have the benefit of a limited-liability corporate legal firewall between us and the big bad world.

    Anyone else have the same concerns? Any lawyers out there care to comment?

  20. Nice to see the SFWA working well.

    Did that issue with the President and the take-down notices get sorted out?

  21. Great post and a very useful thing to remember for a wannabe writer. I can understand the magazine’s reluctance. Most likely they’re nothing but a cash cow organization owned by a bigger holding company. All their legal nonsense is set by somebody else. Probably Rupert Murdoch; this sounds like the kind of stuff he’d try to pull. It makes me wonder what kind of illegal or quasi-legal shenanigans they would have tried with your material if you hadn’t held them up by objecting to the idiotic contract.

  22. GJBC,

    I hope you’re right about wisdom and justice. Unfortunately I’ve seen them stacked up against power and profit before. Track record isn’t very good, especially short term.

    Might want to drag out all the old contracts and see what’s been signed away.

    Perhaps get a lawyer and get any necessary clauses removed/invalidated. Not being a lawyer critter myself I couldn’t say for sure but you might want to argue that unforeseen consequences of new technology meant that neither you, nor your lawyer, were able to understand the long term implications of those parts of the contract.

    Might want to tempt a bright young lawyer to get in early on what likely will become a very lucrative area of expertise in contract law.

  23. Me, I fail to see how you as a writer had grounds to get any money in the first place.

    The editor asked you to write a story for a magazine. You wrote one. Then, as far as I can see, the negotiations begin. Everything you did before then was on your time. The work exists as a submission, belonging solely to the writer.

    I guess I have trouble wrapping my head around creative work written on spec. Is this a SF thing? Even then, the kill fee would be after the contract is signed. Before that happens, it’s just two interested parties talking about a non-non-dramatic work. The act of an editor who expresses interest in a writer would be called a solicitation, nothing more.

    If I got a kill fee for every work that wasn’t published for whatever reason after a solicitation, I wouldn’t have a lot of money, but I sure would be known really quick as a difficult writer who wants a kill fee when h/she sees the contract after the fact and doesn’t like it.

  24. Interesting, wizzyd.

    Personally, I do not start work until well after I have a valid contract. The only way I’d start without a contract is if I was committed to doing the job gratis (like, fixing my Mom’s screen door or something).

    Of course, I live in a US state where verbal agreements are legally binding, so multi-billion dollar deals fly on a handshake around here… and that’s one of several reasons we’re the corporate capitol of the world.

  25. They have twice come through for me, the first time when a foreign publisher decided to reprint something I had published for which *I* had bought foreign rights, the second time when I had foolishly signed an especially horrible contract, having just suffered the loss of a parent and been diagnosed with a bad condition. However, subsequently, SFWA revised its rules, and now it only does work on behalf of active members, which at the time I was not. But they are highly effective in doing their jobs, which are above and beyond their actual careers and, of course, are entirely unpaid. Gives a new meaning to “the silent service”.

  26. Cory:

    Nice post. It was a pleasure working with you.

    John E. Johnston III
    SFWA Griefcom Chair

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