I touched briefly on a few of these points last time, but I think it’s a good idea to go a little deeper into the value of a writer’s work.
If a writer is taking his or her work at all seriously, there are a lot of hours going into any piece of writing being produced. It doesn’t matter if it’s a poem, a short story, or a novel; writers are a self-critical bunch, and they have a nasty habit of worrying their work to pieces before ever giving it a chance to see the light of day. The average layperson probably couldn’t wrap his brain around the concept of giving away the product of so much effort to someone for free (or almost free), but it happens all the time in the publishing world.
The same issue of self-criticism factors a lot into the matter. After second-guessing oneself through the entire process, only reluctantly letting go, there’s often a desperation for some kind of validation. To KNOW a piece of writing is good because someone else with authority on the subject said so. There are unscrupulous editors out there who are quite aware of this situation and are more than happy to exploit it, sometimes offering nothing beyond a pat on the back for picking up a story that is going to make THEM money.
This is not to say that a sub-professional rate equates to an unscrupulous publisher or editor. Very few publications offer the coveted five cents per word and above that marks a pro sale, and one can’t expect most publishers in the small press to pay that much. However, a writer has to look long and hard at a publisher’s guidelines before committing to a submission and be sure that the remuneration at least comes close to the work put into a piece. No writer going the traditional route should give a story away for nothing (perhaps barring a charity anthology), and no indie writer should leave his or her work with a market price of zero dollars. However, authors in the former camp have another cross to bear: the contract.
A publishing contract details not only payment for a piece of writing but the publisher’s purchase of rights. Rights have to be evaluated in the exact same way as payment. Is a $25.00 check worth having your work held for five years? Is a hundred dollar advance worth giving up the film rights to a novel? Almost certainly not. The legalese involved can be dense (particularly with novels), sometimes obscuring the facts, so it’s a good idea to familiarize oneself with the standard terms used. Should a clause seem shady, it never hurts to ask for clarification from the editor/publisher or another writer as to its ramifications (preferably both). And if part of a contract is unacceptable, don’t be afraid to negotiate. Many publishers will okay changes as long as they are reasonable.
Now comes the tough part, my self-critical friends. “No” has to become part of your vocabulary. If an editor or publisher refuses to give up or modify a clause that you know is screwing you, walk away. Just like that. It may take a little longer for your work to be read, but at least you’ll still have pride in it–and yourself–in the morning.