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The Contributor Copy: A Dying Breed?

Originally written in August 2014

There's no greater pleasure as an enthusiastic new writer than seeing your story and name in print. And not just seeing it, but holding, stroking, smelling those words, embracing them like you're a proud parent, and then finding a place for them on your bookshelves alongside the writings of your literature heroes. You can construct this feeling for yourself through self-publishing, which I have done a little of in the past, but when it comes professionally inked from the success of a magazine or anthology submission it carries along its own special little aura. A thing to be cherished and embarrassed by. A thing to enshrine and blush about. Proof to yourself that writing is the thing you want to do.

More often than not, when an author has had a story or poem published in print they will receive a complimentary contributor's copy from the publisher, sometimes more than one. This will come at some cost to the publisher, but it establishes a good, trustworthy connection with the writer and is usually gladly accepted in place of actual payment. It also encourages the writer to physically show-off the magazine or collection to other prospective buyers or submitters, and may even do enough to prompt that writer to send in another piece for consideration in the next issue. It acts as a token of the symbiosis between writer and publisher and may even boost sales - especially if the first thing I do is tweet a picture of my copy of it, all proud and giddy. It is, in short, not only a nice thing to do, but a constructive thing to do as well, with benefits all round.

A bunch of my favourite contributor's copies

Over the past couple of years however, I've had a couple of short pieces published in a couple of printed places (I won't say which) and have not received any complimentary copies. Instead I've been shown a proof copy, or been given free access to a digital version, and in one particular instance did not receive anything at all. I made no fuss over any of it and politely bought my own physical copies, because, to be frank, I wanted them. Of course I did. In fact at the time I was perfectly happy to fork out my hard-earned. I convinced myself that I was actually helping the magazine/publisher to carry on their fine work into the glorious future, well aware how expensive and risky such an endeavour can be - particularly in the digital age.

But think about this another way. In these instances it was - essentially - me that paid the editors for the privilege of having my writing published in their magazine. Putting it like that makes it all taste a little more bitter.

My concern is that the digital age will usher in a greater trend of this. Publishers may opt to cost-cut by providing writers with free digital versions (PDF proofs and so on) rather than physical copies, especially when excited writers will almost guarantee a sale. Would this in turn lead to a wider trend of not paying writers in general? Having said that, not paying writers is pretty much par for the course nowadays anyway - I don't think I've ever been paid for an individual submission, and I've a fair whack of things out there now. But at a time when the written word seems to be a much freer commodity thanks to the internet, perhaps writers are becoming too used to not receiving money for their craft - a situation far too easily exploited by those more directly engaged in the business side of things.

Quickies by the Flashtag writers, signed by the contributors - who all received a free copy

Of course, small presses and magazine editors are facing new and difficult struggles themselves these days, especially if they are opting for the increasingly risky print market, so cutting out the need to provide contributor copies will no doubt make a significant and valuable saving. Furthermore, with shortness and brevity being the order of the day, particularly in the forms of micro-poetry and flash fiction, a typical literature magazine might have upwards of twenty to thirty contributors, all of whom have filled barely half a page each. Perhaps contributor copies are simply no longer economically viable and we writers should just shut up and make do with the prestige of publication.

So what should be done? Perhaps author payments should make a return - even if they are just small, token amounts. Or, at the very least, a significant discount on the magazine or anthology in question; cost price or something similar. The most important thing is to keep the relationship between publisher and author happy; each acknowledging the other for their different contributions. Sometimes, as a writer, its not quite enough to say that you've had a story in this or that publication, but to actually allow yourself the time and glory to bask in the still-warm glow of the printed thing itself.

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