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.