Last August I got an email from a major textbook publisher asking for permission to reprint my story “The Mailbox” in a college textbook called Changes and Choices. This was a custom textbook with a short print run. According to the instructor/editor, students who took the course would be “better prepared for the world of work and everyday life situations in general because they have proactively thought through issues about change as they considered the readings in this text.”
Of course I was happy. Other authors in the anthology included Percy Shelley and T.S. Eliot. Holy crap, I was mixed right in with the big guns. Cool. And “The Mailbox” is a special story for me. It was my first pro sale way back in 1987, when it was picked as a Tamarack Award story in Minnesota Monthly magazine. In recent years, the annual award goes to a single story along with $10,000. Back in my day, there were several winners, and we got $500 each. That $500 helped me buy my first word processor.
I couldn’t afford a full-blown computer, so I got a Smith-Corona word processor, an electronic typewriter that plugged into a monitor and external hard drive. It had a monochrome green screen and a 3.5 inch floppy drive. The typewriter could be used on its own, like a regular typewriter, but when plugged into the hard drive and monitor it functioned like a word processor, with your typing appearing on the screen. When you printed from the hard drive, the typewriter served as the printer, so you had to feed each page in manually. It was an ungainly thing and kind of buggy, but it still made me feel like a real writer to invest in new-fangled word-processing technology. But I digress.
The permissions form had a couple things to check off: there was one place where you could check “gratis” and another for “fee.” I thought, “Well, of course I’m going to try for a fee.” I asked my boss at the day job, who’d worked in the textbook market in the past, what a per-story budget might be for something like this. He thought $300 to $500, so I figured, “What the hell,” and wrote in $500. They accepted!
But I was wondering how the heck they came across my twenty-five-year-old story published in a regional magazine. I contacted the instructor, who explained someone had brought it in when they were putting together the first edition of the anthology in the late eighties. Oh, that explains—wait, what now? First edition? Turns out “The Mailbox” had been in this anthology almost since it had first appeared in the magazine. Without my knowledge. That first edition had been published by a different textbook company, and then there was a second edition by the same publisher that was now organizing the third edition. The instructor was apologetic, but wasn’t to blame; the whole reason the college went to the textbook company in the first place was so that the company would handle permissions.
On the one hand, cool, college students have been reading my story and discussing it for nearly twenty-five years. On the other hand, this had been done in violation of my copyright, which had remained with me, not the magazine. Through the freelancer who had originally contacted me, I got in touch with the publisher’s in-house rights guy and explained I had no recollection of granting reprint permissions previously and asked for him to check his records. I also tried contacting the first edition publisher, but they never responded. The current guy turned out to be an upstanding fellow. He got back to me and apologized, owning up to the fact that when they did the second edition they contacted Minnesota Monthly, and after the magazine informed the publisher that I held the copyright and that they had no current contact info, the publisher went ahead and included my story anyway.
Acknowledging that was bad judgment on their part, he said I should obviously be compensated for the second edition, and he offered me $500 for that. I replied that that would have been a nice offer up front, but after the fact it didn’t really take care of business. During the course of our emails he had mentioned they had sold about 1,200 copies of the second edition. So I said how about you pay me $500 for the rights plus a token $1 penalty for each book sold. That would then be $1,700 for the second edition and $500 for the third edition. He countered rounding down to an even $2,000 for both. “Done,” I said.
So, for a twenty-five-year-old story, and without paying any lawyer fees, I negotiated myself a $2,000 paycheck. I’m quite happy with that, and I’m not pursuing the first edition publisher any more, because it’s not really worth my time. The odds of getting anything out of them is slim, and how much could I possibly get, anyway? My boss told me I’d outdone myself on getting as much as I did, and I think he’s right. Now I’m waiting for my copy of the textbook, which I also requested. That’ll be nice on the bookshelf.
[Update: the publisher never sent me a copy of the book!]