What Writers Can Learn From the Write India Contest Debacle

hey-thats-mine

Okay. So the Times of India Write India Campaign has just managed to piss off a vast number of writers, me included. If you’re new to the topic, I’d suggest you read through this post on author Rasana Atreya’s blog for some context. Otherwise most of my venting will fly right over your head.

For the lazier (and better informed) among you, the brief facts of the case are these:

  • Over the last few months, TOI has been running a nationwide event called The Write India Campaign. Regardless of the word ‘Campaign’, it is a writing contest written to prompts given out by some well-known authors.
  • Hidden in the Terms and Conditions of the contest page is a clause that claims ownership of exclusive publication rights on all submitted entries for two years, and nonexclusive publication rights on said entries forever. In effect, this means that TOI owns in perpetuity every story that is submitted to the contest.
  • Either this clause has been retrospectively added by TOI or had gone unnoticed by participating writers until last weekend. Sometime on Saturday, the director of the campaign, in response to a query, stated categorically that none of the writers are allowed to publish their stories anywhere else.
  • That got shared around a bit, and before you knew it a group of writers had arisen, asking questions, murmuring among themselves if this is fair, legal, ethical etc.

To which the director, a lady called Vinita Dawra Nangia, responded with the following message.

Write-India-Final-Message

Let me bring three things to your attention in this note.

One: notice how Vinita describes the questions as ‘baseless protests’ that ‘go against the spirit with which Write India was conceived and has been conducted’. In other words, if you ask a question, you’re a rabble-rouser.

Two: notice how Vinita takes a high ground in granting you moral and ownership rights to your work. This general tone of condescension is present throughout the message, and in many of her earlier tweets on the issue as well. For instance, when someone asked if they could use their story elsewhere, she said, ‘Remember that every one of you who participated is a winner! You wrote a story! :-)’

Three: notice how Vinita still doesn’t make it clear what is going to happen to all those stories that will never be anthologized. Of the thousands of stories they received, they will probably publish a couple of hundred. What of the others? More importantly, what of the ideas contained in them?

Is what TOI doing legal?

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Yes, it is.

A ‘Terms and Conditions’ document on any website is equivalent to a legally binding contract. If you’ve ticked the check box and clicked on ‘Accept’, you’ve signed the contract.

Yes, the contract is unconscionable. Yes, the contract is unethical. Yes, the contract is exploitative. However, it’s not illegal.

But this is not about TOI

I don’t want to spend too much time talking about TOI or Write India, because to be honest, it’s not really about them. It’s about you, folks. In any other industry, contracts such as these get thrown out with a sneer; people don’t dare offer them.

Did you get that? People don’t dare offer them.

But in publishing, not only do they make these ridiculous offers, but they act all indignant and bemused when you raise questions. What is this, they ask. A writer negotiating on terms? Whatever next, a flying pig? Please don’t tarnish the spirit of our organization with your baseless protests. Just sign over your work to us for free. Let us make all the money. You return to your hole and write your next story.

Why do we let them do this?

Let me give you a recent example

This happened to me. A few weeks back, I got an email from a man I don’t know, offering to purchase the film rights to one of my novels. The contract he sent me, in effect, wanted the rights for free forever. He was not going to give me an advance. He was going to be pay me a royalty on receipts (if any) for ten years, on rights he wanted for perpetuity.

Note this: he wanted to sign on rights for perpetuity (which means my death plus seventy years), but was willing to pay royalty on receipts only for ten years.

I asked him what the budget of the movie was. He gave me a number. I asked him if the technicians and actors that will work on the movie are going to get paid. He said yes. I asked him why, then, can he not pay the writer? I told him that the contract was too exploitative and that I was not going to sign it.

His response? In his own words: You really need to get an understanding of how the movie business works before you send me such emails. Reading a few things on the internet and talking to a few people ain’t going to cut it. Don’t be a wise guy while negotiating a deal. It will only make you look more dumb…If you want to learn from me, ask politely…

Do you spot the pattern?

Did you spot the condescension? Do you see the similarity in tone between this message I got and the message that Vinita of TOI put up? People in the business have gotten so used to writers rolling over and signing whatever is put in front of them that when one of them actually dares to read a contract – and heaven forbid, question a clause – he is called dumb and wise in the same sentence.

But, but, but, I hear you say, I’m not a lawyer. I’m a writer. What do I know of clauses and rights and stuff? It’s not my job to know this. Is it?

It is. Sorry. If you’re a writer and you want to publish, it is your job to know the basics. Here is a quick primer.

Things every writer ought to know

  • Repeat to yourself – until it sinks in – that your work has value. The fact that someone is offering you a contract to get it means that it has value. And by that I don’t just mean intangible value. I mean monetary value. Your work is worth money.
  • When you write a story, you own the moral copyright. This means that you assert the moral authority to be known as the owner of your work. No one can take this away from you.
  • Then you have publishing and distributing rights, which is what publishers and people like TOI want to get off you. Because a moral copyright doesn’t have any value unless you can publish the work somewhere, even if it’s on your blog.
  • These rights typically have a term to them. And they cost money. Do not give away these rights for free. If you can help it, do not give them away forever. Remember? Your story has monetary value.
  • Getting credit for your work is not compensation. It’s your moral right. Getting published is not compensation. Only compensation is compensation. If they’re making money, you need to get a share. As simple as that.
  • If the other party is not open to negotiation, don’t sign the contract. Write your story. Publish it on your own. Keep your rights to yourself.

Your writing is your property

Imagine this: a person comes to you and asks you for the right to stay in your house for free forever. He says he will hang a nameplate outside the front door with your name on it, so the moral ownership of it still lies with you. He will kick you out of the house as soon as you sign the agreement. He assures you that you’re a winner, because you built a house, see? Now you can go out into the cold and build another one. ‘Call me as soon as you finish,’ he says, while slamming the front door shut in your face.

These are the terms. Will you sign those papers?

Your stories are your property. They’re as much your property as your house and other legal assets. If you won’t sign away use of your house to anyone without adequate compensation, why would you sign away use of your stories? And with such impunity that other people come to think of it as their right?

If you don’t value your work…

Someone else will, and they will steal it from right under your nose. They will do it legally, like TOI did in this instance, because let’s face it, at this stage, we’re so stupid that we’re literally begging to be robbed. No need to make the effort to come up with something illegal. Just slip in a contract, secure a signature, turn and walk away with a smirk. Easy as.

Just make a few promises and we grovel at their feet.

Speaking of promises…

  • The promise of publication. This is usually enough for many writers to bend over backwards. But think about it. The average anthology of short stories sells perhaps 1000 copies in its lifetime, which means 1000 people have read your story. What if you’d published it on your blog? Would it not have garnered 1000 readers in all the years from now till your death? What if you’d written ten stories in a year and put them together into a Kindle bundle, and published it as a book? Would you not be able to find 1000 readers from now till your death?
  • The promise of association. This is usually with a big brand, like TOI, and with big brand name authors, like the ones they paraded for this contest. Do you really think that the authors read every one of the stories that people sent in? They probably read the shortlisted ten stories each, if that. And do you think these authors care about what you write? Has even one of them bothered to respond about this issue? I don’t blame them. Why should they? Why did you ever think that they should?
  • The promise of the prize itself. This is a legitimate promise, but is the prize big enough to persuade you to give up rights on your story forever for free? I don’t know about you, but if it’s my story, no prize would be big enough.

It has never been easier for writers to reach readers on their own. We have an array of platforms where our work can be read. Blogs, social media, self-publishing – and we still lick the ground on which these lawful thieves walk.

Why?

Because we’re insecure bozos, that’s why

Let’s face it. We’re insecure about our work. We don’t really believe that people ought to pay money to read what we write. We’re constantly on the lookout for validation from someone of authority (someone who is a brand) telling us that hey, you know what, you’re good! What are you doing in the crowd? Come on up to the big boys’ table!

We think that once someone anoints us in this manner, it will all become better. The insecurity will go away. Some magic wand will have touched us. Some fairy dust will have rubbed off. We will feel good about ourselves.

Only we don’t. Take it from a pro who has written and published more than twenty books. The insecurity doesn’t go away. I’m willing to bet that every one of the celebrity authors that participated in the Write India contest feels it too, every time they sit down to write.

So if you’re feeling insecure about your work, welcome to the club! It’s natural. Write through it, write with it, deal with it however you want, but when you’re finished, don’t let it convince you that your writing has no value. This is the crucial part. If you’re giving the rights of your work away for free, you’ve basically let your insecurity win. You’ve convinced yourself that your work is useless.

Hint: it’s not.

Why do I care about all of this?

I did not enter the TOI Write India campaign. None of the 30,000 stories they have are mine. I know only one of the associated celebrity authors (but not too well). I could have let the whole thing blow over quietly and nothing would have changed in my own little universe.

But I’ve seen first hand how many beginning authors are being fleeced with unconscionable contracts just because they don’t know better. There is an inherent power imbalance that comes in when a big brand offers a contract to an unknown writer. If the brand is ethical, they don’t grossly misuse that power. If the brand is unethical, well…

I hope this incident – and this post – has given you enough incentive to begin respecting your work. It’s quite simple: whenever you’re transferring publishing rights, demand payment. If they don’t pay, move on until you find someone who does. If you don’t find anyone, what have you lost? You still have all the rights to your story, don’t you? It’s still yours, isn’t it? At least you’ve not given it away to a moocher who will make money off it for the rest of your life.

That is my main hope, that all this will have awakened us into vigilance. And I figured someone from the establishment should stand up and call out the bullshit.

Questions / Comments?

I know this is a large topic, and I’ve tried to cover it in as much detail as I can, but if you have any questions about anything I said, or if you have comments to make on any aspect of this sorry business of author exploitation, shoot away in the comments. I will be listening in.

Image Source: 1

Comments

  1. Wandering Soul says:

    Thank you for writing this. That’s all I can say. Was not just an eye-opener but so much more for me. Thank you!!

    Like

  2. navoneil says:

    Hi Sharath,  Very illuminating and apt. Thanks for writing from the gut what all of us must feel.  I had submitted a few. Must make sure I withdraw them now 🙂 Kind regards, Navoneil 

    Like

    • Hi Navoneil! Yes, I think all writers – even the winners – should withdraw their entries. But the non-winners definitely should. I’m interested to know how transparent this process will be. Please keep me in the loop as to how this goes, if it’s not too much trouble? Thanks.

      Like

      • Ruchika says:

        What will be required to withdraw the submission? I also submitted a story and it was not selected. After reading your great article I think I should take it back because I am thinking of publishing it on my own website.

        Like

      • Hi Ruchika. If you look at the image that I’ve added in the post with Vinita’s message, it says in there what to do if you want to withdraw your story. You need to email them and let them know that you want the rights back. A few people I know who’ve tried this haven’t heard back from TOI yet. Will be interesting to see what happens with you 🙂

        Like

  3. I agree with you wholeheartedly. It’s time we authors woke up to the fact that without us there IS no publishing industry and demanded our fair share. The situation in India is far worse than overseas. Publishers don’t bother with getting rights enumerated on the contract even. No bothering about moral, distributive or translation rights. They go straightaway for the copyright. They have realized that intellectual property ownership is what will give them clout. The author, tired of pitching their story and receiving rejection slips, sometimes feel it’s better to get published through an eminent publisher. Maybe they will pay him or her for the next work. But such is rarely the case. This case proves how much the situation has denigrated. It should be a wake up call to all creative people.
    Thanks for a very well worded blogpost and the spot-on analogies.

    Like

  4. Bernard Dsa says:

    Well Sharath,

    Your article is clear and straight to the point. Apart from new authors we did have few so called published and bestselling authors participating, right?

    Terms and Conditions should have been a priority. I am not saying it right or wrong but they should have read it.

    Thanks

    Like

  5. Absolutely spot on response to those who think being condescending and devaluing somebody else’s work is justified. I see a lot of creative industries face this.

    Like

  6. Hi Sharath,

    Very thought provoking and eye opening article. I submitted my short story only once. But I was also equally pissed off. I think one problem was with the nature of the contract itself which was exploitative. But the other main issue here is they TOI changed their Terms and conditions right at the last moment and that called people by surprise. If the same had been put up before the start of the campaign, those who were interested could still opt for it. Others who are not interested could not have participated.

    This last minute change of the T&Cs pissed people off very much, and to add to that the condenscending tone of the director of TOIWriteIndia. If at all, the platform helps writers, it is also other way around for them. Writers help grow the platform too. It’s not like TOI is doing it for charity. They want money out of this initiative. But yeah, it benefits writers too. Think of Facebook, Are we doing a favor for FB or are they doing a favor for us? It’s both. Just because we are a beginning writer, it doesn’t undermine our value and our ethics.

    Here is the link of the T&C as of July 9th, 2016 (This was the latest archived version in web.archive.org) for your/everyone’s reference.

    http://web.archive.org/web/20160419221629/http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/books/writeindia/aboutcampaign/46795359.cms

    Like

    • Hi Mitadaur. Thanks for sharing the T&C. Even there, they’re above board legally because their first T&C allows them to ‘change at any time without notice’. TOI can afford the best lawyers. They will make every attempt to keep the whole thing clean in a legal sense. The only thing we can do is be aware as writers, and start respecting ourselves more than we currently do.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ya so true Sharath. We won’t have the time and money to fight such things. And yeah, you were so right. We should start respecting ourselves more.

        Like

  7. Donna Abraham says:

    What if someone had put them up on their blog, based on Vinita’s talks in which she told participants to send out their stories if they can get good alternatives? What do you suggest for such stories, considering some blogs get quite a few views.

    Like

    • Hi Donna. If you’ve already put it up on your blog, I’d suggest leave it there. I doubt if TOI has the time/energy/inclination to go after individual stories in this fashion. The worst that can happen is they will email you and ask you to take it down. You can take it down then. Otherwise just stay put 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Heartfelt thanks for enlightening the newbies Sharath.

    Like

  9. I echo your thoughts! Thanks for covering in detail, the post clarifies a lot of doubts!

    Like

  10. Hi Sharath,

    I read through your article, and yes, everything you have written is very valid. I am a 3rd prize winner in one of the contests, and I am hoping that that story will be published soon. My remaining ten stories did not win. Until I heard about the change in the rules (Vinita and I had a twitter exchange about that because I had saved an earlier tweet from Vinita where she clearly stated that I could publish my non-winning stories anywhere else, and then two months back, I got a different message from Vinita and the TOI WriteIndia team), I had posted my non-winning stories on a public story-sharing platform.

    However I would like to add my perspective on the whole issue here. I will also add a disclaimer that I am not that well-versed with the workings of the publishing industry to be entirely correct in my views. And your responses would help…

    There are thousands of aspiring writers, of whom only a minuscule percentage, actually become successful, famous, and bestselling. I know that publishers take a lot of advantage of budding writers and the royalty paid to authors is quite atrocious. Many writers have to knock at the doors of multiple publishers (and face rejection multiple times) before getting a chance to be published. And even if a writer manages to publish his/her work, without proper marketing and without lady luck smiling, the book may not be a success. At least, this is my understanding of the publishing industry.

    Now, TOI WriteIndia was started on the premise that they would provide a platform for budding writers to be published. For many writers, that means overcoming a huge hurdle that almost every author has faced in their lifetime. It is a chance for many to be recognized and that too being recognized alongside a celebrity author. Yes, monetary benefits may not be there, but I don’t think we should discount the intangible benefits that this platform provides. Everything should not and cannot be about money, and from what I have heard, writing books is not a lucrative career for most authors (JK Rowling and the likes are an exception). Maybe the WriteIndia platform will be the stepping stone for more recognition and monetary benefits later. Who knows? I, for one, am not writing for the money. I am writing to get recognized as a serious writer and I hope that everything else (money, fame, success) will follow suit. Even if I don’t achieve that, I write for myself and for the people who love my stories or poems.

    To be honest, my only concern on this whole publishing rights issue is that if TOI does not publish my non-winning stories, many people don’t get to read the stories that I had written and for me, that is more upsetting than anything else.

    I look forward to hearing your response!

    Like

    • Hi Lakshmy. Thanks for your response. I touched upon this ‘platform’ benefit briefly in my post. Let me elucidate here. Let’s take you as an example. You have one prizewinning story that will be published by TOI in a book. You’ve not been paid for it. So your only ‘intangible’ benefit is the platform itself. By that, what you mean is the number of people who will get to read your story.

      Case 1: You’ve given the publishing rights of your story to TOI. They will publish it in an anthology. The average anthology of short stories by unknown authors sells 1000 copies in its lifetime. Yes, even one that is published by TOI. Let’s be generous and double that estimate to 2000. So you’ve gained 2000 potential readers for that one story. In return for these 2000 readers, you’ve given away your rights forever for free. You’ve made zero money.

      Case 2: Say you publish this story on your blog today, and keep it up on the blog for the rest of your life. Even a small blog today will get 5 individual readers per day. Let’s be extremely stingy and say you get only 1 reader per day. (Notice that I’m being liberal with Case 1 and conservative with Case 2 in order to make a point.) At 1 reader per day, in 2000 days – i.e. approximately 6 years – you’ve gained the same number of readers for the story as you have in Case 1. And you’ve given nothing in return. That means you own the full rights to the story still. You still have made zero money. But the VALUE is still in your hands.

      Case 3: Say you publish this story as a Kindle single. You price it at 49 rupees. Let’s say you make one sale per month. (Again, being extremely conservative.) Just one sale per month. That means you make 20 rupees per month on this story. How much do you make in 6 years? About 1400 rupees. You can do this while your story is still live on the blog. So you’ve gained your 2000 readers from Case 2, and you’ve also made 1400 rupees in Case 3, and on top of all of this, you still have all your story’s rights.

      Case 4: You mention you’ve written 11 stories, ten of which haven’t won and one that has. Now, say you’ve put up all eleven stories up on your blog. At the same rate of 1 reader per story per day, you have 11 readers per day. In 2000 days – i.e. approximately 6 years – you’ve gained 22000 readers.

      Case 5: Say you publish those 11 stories as a Kindle collection. You price it at 99 rupees, netting you 70 rupees per sale. Let’s again estimate one sale per month. How much in 6 years? About 5000 rupees. In 30 years, you will have made 25000 rupees on the book, which is equivalent to a debut novel advance.

      In real life, the numbers of Case 1 will be LOWER, and the numbers of all the following cases will be HIGHER. And in real life, in Cases 2-5, you will continue to write stories, you will continue to put them up, you will continue to garner more readers. You will continue to put up more collections, so both your platform and your monetary compensation will be stronger than depicted here.

      So I’ve deliberately compared the best case scenario with you going with TOI with the absolute worst case scenario of being on your own. And the latter beats the former.

      I will repeat: The best case scenario with TOI publishing your story is defeated by the worst case estimated scenario with you holding on to your story. Now, the only thing that will tilt this balance is money. If TOI comes to you and offers 5000 rupees for publishing your story – and I think they would have, if they were an ethical company – then it makes it worthwhile for you. But even then, I wouldn’t sign a ‘forever’ deal. I would sign perhaps a 5-year deal, after which I will insist on a clause whereby the rights revert to me. So I make my 5000 rupees, I reach my 2000 readers, and after five years, I can still do my Cases 2-5 and earn readers/money throughout my life.

      I hope this busts the myth that seems to have taken hold in your mind (a myth that the big publishers like to propagate) that the ‘platform’ they offer you is worth giving away your work for free. It’s not. The numbers above prove it. Bottom line, no matter whether you’re a greenhorn or an old warhorse, if a publisher is unwilling to put down money on the table for your work, walk away. No exceptions.

      If you have any further questions, please ask 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you for taking the time to respond. I understand what you are saying, but for me, becoming a published writer through a well-known publisher is very important, in fact more important than monetary benefits. I have gone the self-publishing route (not through Kindle) and I did not like it one bit. Also, my future writings do not belong to TOI. Only the stories that have been submitted to TOI will be under their ownership. I agree that by not paying royalty for my stories, they are taking advantage of the situation and I may not get monetary benefits. I am willing to take that hit for now.

        However, if my story does get noticed by other publishers/agents, I do stand a chance to get a better publishing deal where there will be monetary benefits as well, right?

        Maybe my approach and thinking are wrong, but I do feel that I should stick with TOI and see how things pan out. If I feel that the platform is not providing me the visibility I need, I will discontinue writing. After all, that is still in my control because I have not signed any contract with TOI stating that I will write forever for TOI. I am still going to write stories that are not going to be part of the TOI platform and these are published on Wattpad, my FB author page, and notifications go out on Twitter as well as my author website. I have all the social media tools in place. I just need to get the recognition.

        Like

      • Hi Lakshmy. You will notice that in my first response, I am only referring to the stories you have written, not the ones you will write. Of course you will write more stories. Of course you have full freedom on where to place them. My whole response was addressing your point that publishing with TOI will get you recognition. It won’t. But I understand that the mindset is not easy to shake.

        ‘If my story does get noticed by other publishers/agents, I do stand a chance to get a better publishing deal where there will be monetary benefits as well, right?’

        How will your story get noticed by other publishers/agents just because it’s published in an anthology? Publishers and agents don’t have enough time to read all the manuscripts that are actively submitted to them. If you want a publisher or an agent to notice you, you must submit to them.

        I will leave you with one question, though: how far are you going to go for ‘recognition’? And in your opinion, what is recognition? Say you write a novel today, and a big name publisher offers to publish you without any monetary compensation. They promise to sell 3000 copies of the book. Will you give it to them, under the same logic that you will write more novels in the future, therefore doing it for free now is justifiable? Where do you draw the line? At what point do you say, ‘Right, I’m done giving away my intellectual property for free. I have enough recognition now. From now on, I will put a price on my rights’?

        The answer, as it seems to me, is that there is no end to recognition. After you publish one book, you may think that you need more recognition with the second, and further more with the third. There is no magic line that you cross when you get published and you’re suddenly a ‘recognized’ author. As someone who has been published multiple times by big name publishers, you can take it from me. I feel pretty unrecognized even now 🙂

        Having said all this, though, it’s your choice. If you sign over your rights knowing full well that you ARE being exploited, then it’s all good. Nobody has a right to tell you how to go about your writing career/hobby/pastime. The original post was more for writers who don’t know they’re being exploited, which is why they got shocked when the big reveal came out. Being more aware can mitigate these shocks.

        And there is no right or wrong. If, after considering all the information, you decide that this is right for you in your current situation, go on right ahead. I don’t agree with you (and the refutation is in the previous comment), but I cannot question your decision as long as it’s an informed one.

        Good luck 🙂

        Liked by 3 people

  11. Hi Sharath. I had typed in a comment yesterday but it doesn’t seem to be here. Anyways, all that I wanted to say is that I appreciate you writing this post despite you not being part of it either by way of celebrity author or as a contestant. You could have just kept quiet about it but you didn’t and I truly appreciate the fact that you are a responsible author. Best wishes, Shail

    Like

  12. A very informative and much-needed post – thank you!

    Like

  13. Reminds me of a time when we were in discussion with a publisher about use of my comic character”s comic strips in their magazine. At some point in our conversation, we asked how will we get for each published comic strip and the ‘surprised’ response was “What? You guys are expecting money in return. We are publishing your work in our magazine. Isn’t that enough?”

    We were indeed swayed by the logic and lure and temptation of getting published in a BiG business magazine but something in the way that editor said those words completely pissed us off (thankfully) and we walked away from the ‘deal’

    We never got published on regular basis in any print publication (because the story was the same everywhere, free content, no payment). We did get mentioned in several articles over the years where a sample comic strip and sometimes our photos got published as new age comics in India. Gave us confidence that what we produced was quality work and we should not give for free.

    A nice article above Sharath. A little biased but i think it is well balanced at the same time 😛

    Like

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: