Sometimes, by happy serendipity, you discover something that, in a totally non-conspiracy-theory kind of way, allows you to connect a few dots and go, "Ah soooo!" Being someone who makes something of a close-to-full-time hobby of science fiction and fantasy literature, and knowing as I do a number of writers both professional and aspiring, I came across news recently of a potential scam targeting the latter group.
The sad truth of our world is that there are hucksters and con artists out there who latch onto your dreams and hopes and insecurities in order to rob you blind. Religion has refined this so expertly all you can do is stand in awe.
Aspiring writers are easy pickings for vile charlatans. And it is via the blogs of award-winning science fiction novelist John Scalzi and literary agent Janet Reid that I learn of a writing contest for newbie talents, the fine print of which can be summarized as "We Are Going To Fuck You." (What does any of this have to do with atheism and religion? Wait for it.)
The contest is run by one Karen Hunter of First One Digital Publishing. Immediately, to anyone who knows anything about the legalities of actual publishing, red flags are flying all over the map. First flag: entrants must pony up a $149 entry fee. An entry fee isn't problematic in itself, but this one's exorbitant, to put it mildly. I just entered an online screenwriting contest for the princely sum of 12 bucks.
Then there is this tiny little rider that they hope you don't notice, buried deep within the rules.
All submissions become sole property of Sponsor and will not be acknowledged or returned. By submitting an entry, all entrants grant Sponsor the absolute and unconditional right and authority to copy, edit, publish, promote, broadcast, or otherwise use, in whole or in part, their entries, in perpetuity, in any manner without further permission, notice or compensation. Entries that contain copyrighted material must include a release from the copyright holder.
For those of you not up on writing or intellectual property stuff, what an entrant is being told here is that First One Digital Publishing expects you to give away all of your rights to the story you submit, forever. Once they have it, it's no longer yours, and not only will you never get paid a dime if, say, they sell the story to film or TV, you cannot even ask for it back if they do nothing with it. And you're expected to shell out 149 bones for the privilege. I'm reminded of Sarah Palin suggesting that women should be charged for their rape kits.
As Scalzi points out, with rules like these, why would any writer with a story good enough to submit to this contest not simply submit it to a real agent or publisher? Because you see, in traditional publishing, a writer is never expected to sign away all rights. When, for instance, Random House accepts your story or book, they are never flat-out buying up the story, lock stock and barrel. They are simply buying first publication rights, which is a license allowing them to be the publishers of your story, to which you retain full copyright, for a period of time specified by the contract. Once the contract expires, the publisher can choose to negotiate a renewal of it, or not, leaving the author free to take the property elsewhere. (Note: there is a thing called "work for hire," but I'm not addressing that here.)
But this contest is relying on newbie writers being utterly ignorant of their legal rights, which, sadly, almost all of them are. And considering that the accepted length for entries runs up to 65,000 words — right around the low end of what the industry considers a novel — this represents quite a lot of work Hunter is expecting a writer to pay to give up.
The fuckage continues. You don't have to know jack about writing and publishing to raise an eyebrow at this one:
In the event that there is an insufficient number of entries received that meet the minimum standards determined by the judges, all prizes will not be awarded.
If an "insufficient number of entries" are received, First One can simply call the whole thing off. How many entries are "sufficient"? Why, they don't say. So they can get 20, or 200, or 2000, and decide, so sorry, we've received an "insufficient number" of entries, but thanks all the same for submitting. And for your entry fee. Wait, don't you get that back if the contest is cancelled? Why, it doesn't say, so I'm going to take that as a "No." So the contest will be off, but they'll still have your cash in their bank, and your story, which they can publish, edit, do whatever with, without paying you or even putting your name on it. Because their rules require you not only to grab your ankles but supply your own lube. Finally they wrap everything up with a kicker that leaves them legally untouchable for anything, including, one fears, any arbitrary decision to turn up at your house one day, shoot your whole family dead and burn the place down.
By entering, entrants release judges and Sponsor(s), and its parent company, subsidiaries, production, and promotion agencies from any and all liability for any loss, harm, damages, costs, or expenses, including without limitation property damages, personal injury, and/or death arising out of participation in this contest, the acceptance, possession, use or misuse of any prize, claims based on publicity rights, defamation or invasion of privacy, merchandise delivery, or the violation of any intellectual property rights, including but not limited to copyright infringement and/or trademark infringement.
No, I'm not sure what kind of writing contest could result in "property damages, personal injury or death," but at this point I'm willing to believe they'll think of something.
Seriously, even the prominent "Writers of the Future" contest, a major competition in SF publishing that has launched several notable careers, and which is run by the publishing arm of the Church of motherfucking Scientology, does nothing that isn't strictly ethically above-board in their own rules. Hopefully, by now, I've made it abundantly clear what an exercise in total fail Karen Hunter's little contest really is.
So now we get to that happy serendipity I mentioned earlier. Once word got out in writing and publishing circles — with people tweeting the living hell out of the Janet Reid blog in particular — some folks began to wonder just who this Karen Hunter person was. Particularly when she responded to Reid with an awesomely bitch-ass comment in her blog thread.
While I appreciate your comments. And I understand your vested interest in this business because if we're successful, we eliminate the need for literary agents, the contest hasn't launched yet. So to post our rules and a link telling people that this is a contest to avoid is both self-serving and misleading. Are there issues with the rules, yes. But I think you should wait until the contest officially launches on Feb. 11, 2011, before you tell people to not join it. That's the fair thing to do.
Could I, a 20-year veteran in publishing as a writer and publisher, afford to put out a contest that rips people off? I'm not desperate. The goal is to truly find the next great author, something not too many people are actually looking for. What's been your success track record?
PS: I sleep extremely well every night because I operate in truth.
Man. Hunter wasn't done. This comment was immediately followed by "If my response doesn't appear on your blog, I'll know what your true motives are. Thanks again." Well, I'd say the contest, rather than revealing how unnecessary agents are, actually illustrates their extreme importance, as agents make their living running interference between clueless n00b writers and the hucksters like Hunter who try to scam them.
Even given the hilarious defensive petulance and rich irony of much of this whine, there was just a lot in Hunter's language that sounded to me exactly like the kind of butthurt rhetoric we get in emails from creationists, or conspiracy fans, or alt-med anti-vax loons, or anyone who's pissed at us for slamming something they've attached themselves passionately to, and who can't articulate their anger other than to imagine wild ulterior motives driving us.
So it came as little surprise to discover that Karen Hunter has done the right-wing Christian talking pundit thing on cable news.
Do any of you remember the "atheists need their own Hallmark cards" lady? Well, this is that Karen Hunter. And if you aren't familiar with her still, she made an appearance on Paula Zahn's show on CNN about four years ago, where the topic happened to turn to atheism. Appearing alongside the odious Debbie Schlussel, Hunter offered such memorable bon mots as these.
What does an atheist believe? Nothing. I think this is such a ridiculous story. Are we not going to take "In God We Trust" off of our dollars? Are we going to not say "one nation under God?" When does it end? We took prayer out of schools. What more do they want?
If [atheists] had Hallmark cards, maybe they wouldn't feel so left out. We have Christmas cards. We have Kwanzaa cards now. Maybe they need to get some atheist cards and get that whole ball rolling so more people can get involved with what they're doing. I think they need to shut up and let people do what they do. No, I think they need to shut up about it.
And here's my very favorite.
I think they need to shut up about crying wolf all the time and saying that they're being imposed upon. I personally think that they should never have taken prayer out of schools. I would rather there be some morality in schools.
Oh, morality? Would this be the "morality," Karen, that led you to think you could get away with trying to bogart the rights in perpetuity of possibly hundreds of hungry and eager aspiring creative talents, while taking their money and constructing an impermeable legal shield around yourself barring them from any recourse against you, even the right to have the fruits of their labors returned to them if you have no desire to publish them? Or if you do publish their work to great success, and overlook putting their byline on it, having set things up so you don't have to part with a penny in royalties either?
And was it the same "morality" that gave you the smug arrogance to think you could avoid getting called on all this bullshit, by actual established and respected (and godless) professionals in the field to which you're only a pretender? Is that an example of the Christian "morality" you disdain atheists for lacking? Then let me state how proud I am to have missed the lessons in "morality" you took to heart. As a creative person myself, nothing disgusts me more than the idea of a sleaze merchant like you exploiting the naivety behind someone else's dreams, and all for your own petty personal enrichment. But somehow, knowing that you've probably convinced yourself it's what Jesus would do, all I can say is, it figures.