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The Problem with Inclusive Publishers

8 Jun

These days, more and more publishers are touting their inclusive credentials, stressing that they’re open to a diverse set of contributors. The argument is that, in the past, women, non-white and other minority writers didn’t feel welcome. Primarily, this seems to be an American and large press debate – the British small presses have long been welcoming to a diverse cast of authors and poets – but it is certainly the trend of the moment and, in many ways, a welcome one.

Some publishers, such as Black Girl Magic (issues are available on Amazon) do an excellent job, promoting characters that aren’t often seen in the mainstream and welcoming all sorts of writers. But, others, unintentionally, aren’t so welcoming. The main problem is that, naturally, wanting to welcome a diverse set of writers, they enquire rather intrusively into the lives of would-be contributors. Whereas Black Girl Magic, an excellent example of how to be welcoming, makes answering such questions optional, some make it compulsory. Yes, you could lie or put ‘not applicable’, but it does come across a bit strong. Not everyone wants to share personal details (actually, I’ve been more willing to do so with Black Girl Magic because I didn’t feel badgered). Then, there are those that disbar people who aren’t one of the groups they’re promoting from submitting – not only do I find this off-putting when I qualify to submit, but it’s problematic if you don’t neatly fit in a niche (of course, you can query, but that’s a problem if you’re not keen to discuss yourself with strangers).

Then, there are those that require (that’s require, not request) an author photograph. I suppose you could supply a fake or a non-portrait photo, but it’s not welcoming to people who might have an issue with their image being available online. And, of course, there are those publishers, mainly American, that ask for your ‘legal name’. In Britain, there isn’t actually such a thing, although many people doubtless assume there is and banks and such institutions often act as if there is (it’s actually a complicated topic). Of course, it’s a problem if you have a contract to sign (not that they’re usually worth the data saving them to your hard drive), but it does raise problems for people whose identity isn’t clean cut – the sort of people you might wish to include amongst your writers…

The irony is that, while I’ve found the majority of self-proclaimed inclusive publishers have at least one of these issues, many that make no such claims are actually far more welcoming. But, then, I think the vast majority of editors are only interested in high-quality writing and not who wrote it. I just hope that not too many people are being put off submitting their work by either unintentionally unwelcoming inclusive editors or repeated tales of how other editors aren’t so inclusive. Most are. Try them.

Free ezines!

28 Oct

Everybody likes something for nothing, and sometimes the free stuff is actually worth something, like these three…

Download Sirens Call ezine – download pdfs of this horror fiction and poetry ezine for free. A new issue has just been released for Hallowe’en.

Tigershark ezine website – request your pdfs of this themed fiction and poetry ezine by emailing tigersharkpublishing@hotmail.co.uk . A new issue will be available for request on Hallowe’en, stocked with horror.

Read Bad Apple webzine and read the young adult fiction online.

In addition, remember that you can request recent issues of The Supplement and Awen in pdf by emailing atlanteanpublishing@hotmail.com and can read back issues of Awen Online online (the webzine is currently on hiatus).

Discriminating Editors

30 Sep

Editors should be discriminating, but rather than discriminating taste in literature, some seem just to discriminate. Now, while I support the right of editors to run their little fiefs as they wish, I believe, as I’ve stated before, that the only legitimate reason to refuse to publish work should be the quality of the writing (with the exception of the behaviour of the writer as it impinges upon their relationship with the editor – abusive or fraudulent writers deserve to be banned). Of course, I have sympathy with editors who worry that association with someone with extreme views may taint them, but I think most people are sensible enough not confuse the publication of fiction with an endorsement of views held by their author (and, where the writing expresses uncomfortable ideas, the editor is, of course, free to reject it on those grounds).

But, even allowing that an editor may choose to ban a writer for their personal sins, there is absolutely no justification for barring writers from publication for any other reason. Indeed, I’ll admit I’m not comfortable with anthologies and competitions that are only open to certain groups – I’ve declined to submit to such where I was eligible for that reason – but, they are, at least, intended to promote less-represented groups rather than hold back others.

(I must stress that there is a difference between these and anthologies and magazines, such as Black Girl Magic, that focus upon minority characters: while people from the represented group are likely to predominate as writers – after all, who else is better placed to write about a group than members of the group? – anybody can submit to them and they seek to encourage inclusivity rather than ghettoise writers.)

Given my feelings, you can imagine my disgust at discovering an editor openly declaring they had banned Israeli writers from submitting until ‘Israel gives the Palestinians a state.’ I found it almost laughable as the editor is an American and the USA is one of those countries that refuse to recognise the Palestinian state, while its meddling in the region is a major reason why moves towards a solution are stalled. Further, USA has failed to give the native Americans or Hawaiians their own states. By his reasoning, the editor ought to ban American writers. (And, why are no other nations’ writers banned, such as Chinese writers over the occupation of Tibet?)

But, I have to wonder if there’s more to it than Palestine. While Israel is home to Arabs and Druze who identify as Israelis, to most people the country is synonymous with Jews and has become an acceptable means for anti-Semites to express their racism. It would certainly explain the apparent hypocrisy in failing to ban any other nationalities if the editor is actually a racist.

I don’t think anyone should be excluded from publication for their nationality, nor due to racism.

Still, regardless of his reasons, I refuse to patronise a publication that discriminates, even if it’s a paying market, and I hope other decent writers would do likewise.

However, I wouldn’t ban the editor from submitting to an Atlantean publication; everyone is welcome to submit and I won’t be asking for their race, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality, politics or any other details that might exclude them. I will consider their work on its merit alone. Which is how it should be.

Not Much of a Prize

19 Sep

Occasionally, you will see a writing competition sponsored by a big publisher. Frequently free to enter, these seem like a godsend to writers desperate for a chance at the big time. What could be better than to win a competition backed by a publishing ‘name’ or have your story or poem appear in a professional anthology? And, that’s before we consider the prize money, which is usually a decent amount. I’m certain they receive plenty of submissions from hopeful entrants.

But, read the small print and the prize is seldom as good as it sounds. Almost invariably, the competition rules state that the winner passes their copyright to the winning entry to the publisher. For some writers, this may seem small price to pay for a shot at fame and fortune (or the literary equivalent thereof), but, for a submission good enough to win such a competition, a rather small one-off payment and the kudos of winning and publication aren’t really good recompense for losing control to your work.

Even in these days of web publication, ebooks and print-on-demand books that can keep an anthology available indefinitely without necessarily providing additional payments to contributors, most publishers do not insist on perpetual exclusivity or the signing-over of rights, so there is, at least, the potential to resell your work, and small publishers generally aren’t making too much money from their anthologies and have a chance of going out of business and taking their anthologies with them. Big publishers are likely to be making enough to offer better terms and, if they go out of business, will almost certainly have their assets bought by another publisher.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely most people bother to read the small print and, if they do, probably don’t really understand just what they’re being asked to sign away or else don’t care, which is why these big publishers keep on promoting these competitions. As proper businesses, not amateurs, they really should treat writers better. Don’t be fooled.

Contracts

29 Jul

There is one area of writing that I really don’t enjoy: contracts. It’s not the contracts themselves that is the problem, but the fact that so many are badly written and most are irrelevant. Of course, one might expect a contract where a lot of money is involved, but I’ve found absolutely no correlation between the amounts involved and whether a contract exists – I’ve had to sign contracts for stories where the odds of ever earning anything (such as an editor’s choice award) are low, while the highest paying stories I’ve sold didn’t involve a contract at all.

Given the small amounts of money involved, many contracts are effectively unenforceable due to the cost of court proceedings (especially as I’m usually on the wrong side of the Atlantic), making the signing of them a waste of time. (I’ve had one publisher apparently fold without sending the complimentary copy or payment specified in a contract, although the book remains available on Amazon, and been unable to do anything about it.)

Unfortunately, not only do many publishers insist on writers signing this pointless agreements, but a lot of them are badly written. Now, the vast majority of publishers are decent people who don’t intend to scam writers, but I’ve encountered more than one contract that, unintentionally, was worded so that I would lose control over my story, and some that are just plain incomprehensible or contradictory.

The problem is that very few writers are contract lawyers and, for most of us, writing is either a hobby or a very-low-paying occupation, making consulting a lawyer for every contract a financial impossibility given the amounts involved. However, there are three things you can do before signing a contract. The first is to ask a professional writer. Of course, we’re not contract lawyers, but we have the experience to spot the more obvious problems and offer advice. The second thing you can do is post your question in an online legal advice forum (just make sure you choose the right country, as laws may be different elsewhere). The third is to ask the publisher to clarify any points in writing and keep a copy (save a screen grab if it’s an email or online message); although this doesn’t override the contract you’re signing, if they later claim to control rights you didn’t realise you were granting, it may help prove a case of fraud if they misled you when directly questioned about the contract.

I hope any editors reading this will give consideration to whether they need writers to sign a contract and, if they do, whether it needs to be complicated. If all you want are first publication rights and a period of exclusivity, why do you need a dozen clauses? Nor does a contract doesn’t need to be written in legal jargon, so keep it simple!

Is It Racist?

12 Jun

Given her friendship with Gordon Brown and ties to New Labour, it is hardly surprising that JK Rowling has picked up the bad habit of accusing those who disagree with her of being racist. The casting of a black actress as Hermione in the new stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, has caused dissatisfaction for many fans who have a clear image of the character, which is of a white, middle-class girl who will grow into a white, middle-class woman, for whom Emma Watson was a good fit. Fans (and I’ll include myself here) would be no happier if she were portrayed as American or a natural blonde. A similar reaction can be found in the portrayal of MC Beaton’s Agatha Raisin as a blonde in the Sky 1 series – nobody has yet levelled accusations of racism against blondes there, at least.

Really, it’s a compliment to the authors that they’ve so vividly brought a character to life in millions of imaginations and lashing out with nasty accusations at fans having for the temerity to love the characters they’ve created is, frankly, ridiculous. The problem isn’t so much the dubious casting; it is, after all, fiction, but the fact that disagreeing with the decision should spark such an offensive and over-the-top reaction is ridiculous. Except that such overreaction makes perfect sense if we realise this isn’t about the fans or diversity, but about white liberal guilt. JK Rowling is reacting to her own failure to make the series more diverse by lashing out at anyone who reminds her of the fact.

If only she had access to a time turner, she could go back in time and make Hermione black. There is, after all, no reason why the character couldn’t have been – unlike Harry and Ron with their connection to ancient wizard families and a stereotypical middle class English family, there is nothing about Hermione that dictates the characters race. Unfortunately, rather than having an unknown character that could be altered without issue, as happened, for example, to the title character in the Angelina Jolie movie Salt (originally male), she waited till Hermione had been established across seven books and eight movies and her appearance had been solidified in fans’ minds.

As I’ve said before, there’s also something patronising about this trend for trying to make established white characters black, as if no black character could conceivably be popular without white actors to lay the groundwork.

There’s absolutely no reason why new lead characters, whether inspired by existing ones or wholly original, cannot be created who are non-white and not the usual crop of caricatures. Besides the presence of BAME populations in the UK and USA that would allow for non-white secret agents, wizards, etc, within a Western context, there’s no reason why there couldn’t be a film or novel about a Kenyan agent in the mould of James Bond or a wizarding school in India (although, perhaps best left to writers from those cultures, especially given the recent accusations of ‘appropriation’ levelled against the oh-so-politically-correct Ms Rowling).

One might also wonder why JK Rowling didn’t just create a new lead character for the play or for a follow-up series who isn’t white? This would have assuaged her apparent unease at not doing so earlier, and encouraged fans to adopt such a character as a favourite, rather than creating unnecessary tension involving race.

Perhaps, cynically, the entire episode is no more than a publicity stunt, knowing that fans would object to significant changes of any sort, whilst allowing maximum controversy compared to Agatha Raisin’s hair colour. I hope not, as this would be both an insult to the actress and a particularly vile trivialisation of a genuine issue.

It really is time that those authors who wish to see greater diversity in fiction started introducing new BAME characters in their own right and not as some sort of lazy afterthought or in the form of racial caricatures. There is a place for such characters, but hijacking Hermione isn’t it.

For a magazine that is working to create just such diversity, visit Black Girl Magic.

All Just A Dream

20 May

The other day, I read a comment on Facebook about the annoyance of discovering that a significant chunk of a novel was nothing but a dream. Now, I quite like dream sequences, but I also agree with this assessment because, when we learn that “It was all just a dream,” it very often is nothing but a cop-out, a means of avoiding the fall-out from events.

Of course, handled well, such a discovery in a comedic story can be amusing, but done clumsily or used in more serious works, it is frequently a letdown, effectively either invalidating a storyline you’ve enjoyed or forcing you to wade through rubbish for nothing.

But, I don’t think that “It was all just a dream,” which is usually a sign of lazy writing, should be confused with dream sequences generally or narratives that call into doubt what is real.

A dream sequence, even if it misleads by not initially appearing to be a dream, isn’t a copout: it should further the plot, rather than merely seeing the ‘reset button’ being hit at the end. Of course, events may be ‘reset’ at the end of the dream if it seemingly altered things, but, unlike saying “It was all just a dream” (although the character, in the story, may echo just that sentiment), the dream should have an impact, such as containing a prophecy (or what they believe is a prophecy) or the dreamer gaining new insight or being forced to confront something as a result. A well-written dream sequence should have an effect on the story or, at least, tell us something new.

Then, there are those stories that, at first glance, seem no different to dreams, but which are actually calling into doubt what is and isn’t real. In a sense, they end with “It was all just a dream. Or, was it?” albeit, one hopes, more subtly than that! Although some readers may lump such narratives in with the former unsatisfying sort of story, most will come away questioning just what did and didn’t happen and, perhaps, will even ponder how we define reality. To offer an example, the movie Black Swan includes many scenes that may not have happened, or not as we see them occur on the screen, yet the doubtfulness of what we’ve just watched doesn’t invalidate the events of the movie as they convincingly demonstrate the mental breakdown of Natalie Portman’s character through her reactions to those, possibly nonexistent, events.

Thus, it should be summed up that it’s not the presence or absence of dreams that makes or breaks a story, but whether their presence actually effects the narrative or not, just as the inclusion of any element that doesn’t further the plot or develop its characters, no matter how brilliant, is ultimately a disappointment. What matters is that what is included matters…