Recently, I found myself on the receiving end of a magazine publisher’s wrath. He had accepted my article for publication--paying in copies only--and requested that I sign a release transferring all my rights to the article. I asked him what was the current circulation of his publication, and here is what he wrote back, following by my response. (The emboldment is mine.) In this published correspondence, I altered all recognizable names.
XYZ publisher to me:
“I must also stress again that XYZ does not have only first rights and then returns the rights to the author. We retain rights to almost everything we publish for as long as the law allows. The writers cannot republish their work after appearing in XYZ wherever they choose without getting our approval.… We have permanent exclusivity (as long as the copyright law allows), and we must be consulted at all times for future republication.
“Since I'm truth-telling now, I must also confess that I was put off by your inquiry about the size of XYZ's readership and even your question about an online XYZ version for your piece. XYZ has had authors of great renown published in our magazine--[Here come a list of distinguished, known authors, t.c.] Not one has asked these questions. But here are the answers: XYZ's readership is about 10,000 and probably much more because it reaches worldwide. The magazine is undoubtedly shared by many subscribers and buyers with family, friends, colleagues, and students. Libraries and universities receive XYZ, and we have anecdotal evidence to the wide dispersion of the journal.”
Me, lowly author, responded:
“Before I turned to writing fiction full time, I spent years at Hearst Magazine--on the business side, not in editorial--then was the publisher of Savvy Woman magazine and later a consultant to dozens of magazine publishers. It's a business I used to know very well. And it is a business where people ask questions and have the right to full disclosure. Interestingly, since I moved to the writers' side of the fence (although I rarely write journalistic-style articles), I've found that editors and publishers expect writers to approach them with hat in hand. Even asking a simple question seems like chutzpah. There is an atmosphere in which writers seem to need publishers more than publishers need writers, and this uneven playing field throws fear in the hearts of writers. My question about circulation--which I have no way of gauging via independent sources--is a legitimate one when a publisher requests a lifetime exclusivity to a piece but offers no pay. My question does not challenge XYZ's editorial reputation. The editorial value of XYZ is self-evident by its very respected stable of contributing writers--and by my own personal experience with your stewardship of this publication. My question never meant to offend you, yet it did. If anything, this correspondence tells me that more dialogue between writers and publishers is needed, and that publishers should be more attuned to writers' needs to assess their options. You would not consider an advertiser's question about circulation size offensive, yet a writer who pours hours, weeks and sometimes months into writing an article has no right to a similar question. (The article you accepted for publication took two years, with interviews in two different continents other than America.) The fact that my mere asking a question about circulation size might jeopardize the chance of my article being published because you might view me as "a difficult writer to work with" indicates to me the precarious situations in which writers find themselves. "
The publisher responded:
“I understand your chagrin, but let an elder (I'm 81), who has spent a lifetime as a writer (look up my novel QRST) and has suffered all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune dealing with editors, give you some advice. I would suggest that you avoid asking editors such questions unless you're placing an ad in the editor's magazine and not submitting a piece for publication. Why? The editors of magazines that command a hefty number of subscribers and enormous sales at newspaper stands are snobby enough to feel contempt for a young writer who doesn't already know how great their publications are.
“Editors, like me, of important publications that don't command a large public of subscribers and struggle for existence become very defensive. To themselves they might say, "Doesn't this neophyte know how influential and important we are in spite of our paltry list of subscribers?” I bridle at young writers, perhaps unjustly, who want to know if we have a giant audience for their work when they should be emphasizing our culture and mission above all. You are undoubtedly in the latter category, so I apologize for snapping at you. But my intentions were honorable. I'm printing your piece because I want our audience to know about the [topic]. That's first and foremost. But I'm also printing your piece because it's well-written and not simply an advertisement and a puff piece for the [topic].”
UPDATE: The piece ran and he sent me not just 3, but 5 copies…. Why did I agree? Because the piece was too long for most print magazines, had run in a regional publication, and was time-sensitive. Plus, the last time I let him publish my piece it was picked by a major publisher for an anthology that brought me great honor….