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Charity Publishing: What Indie Authors Should Know

Charity Publishing: What Indie Authors Should Know

Donating to charity is a noble goal, and publishing projects can be a great way to raise money for a good cause. However, many an author has taken part in a collaboration that fell apart, or proved to be a nightmare for the participants. Others have been exploited by a charitable project whose beneficiary turned out to be the organizer.

Mixing charity and publishing is fraught with risks and responsibilities, and good intentions can lead down very dark paths. Here’s what you should be aware of when taking part in a charity anthology, box set, or other publishing venture.

1. Don’t join a charity project in the hopes of significantly increasing your exposure or your income.

If you’re struggling to make a living as an author, diverting your resources and revenue to charity is unlikely to advance your career.

When a publisher asks you to contribute your work, or a portion of your revenue, or all of that revenue, understand that you are sacrificing that income. This is often framed as a win-win proposition, but it really is taking the author’s earnings and giving them to the charity. If the warm glow you get from donating to charity is all the reward you seek, that’s great! But if you’re looking for the author’s “win” in that win-win equation, know that it’s unlikely to be a tangible benefit.

Working for exposure is giving away your services for free. Hard stop.

2. Remember that publishing is a business.

It takes money to run a publishing house, to pay the staff, to market books. That can be challenging for small publishers even in a purely for-profit business model.

Is your publisher earning enough from conventional sales to sustain the business, and earning sufficient profit to donate some to charity? If not, they’re building a house of cards that may collapse at the slightest puff of an ill wind. And it’s invariably the authors who come out worse in that collapse.

3. Charity is not an excuse for bad practices.

Vanity presses and noviced small publishers may use charitable projects as a shield to deflect criticism. “Well, this is for charity,” the publisher may say, “so profit isn’t the primary focus.” Or they may respond to questions about royalties or terms defensively, citing “all the good” the publisher does.

These are evasions that should raise red flags for any author. A publisher has many responsibilities to authors, booksellers, and readers. Charitable goals do not excuse the publisher from those responsibilities, they add to them.

4. Understand that running a charitable business is not easy.

The complexities of a nonprofit venture can be huge. It’s demanding, it adds layer upon layer of burdens and complications to the already challenging task of publishing, and it’s absolutely not for amateurs.

Look for experienced publishers who also have experience with charity projects, preferably as both an organizer and a participant. And watch out for overworked entrepreneurs who appear to have too many irons in the fire. These are often well-meaning individuals who have trouble saying “no” to projects, and overload may drive them to exhaustion and failure.

5. Know the percentages.

Don’t be afraid to ask for hard numbers. As a participant, it’s your right to know what percentage of the revenue is going to overhead, to the organizer, to the charity, and to the authors. Are those numbers after expenses? Which expenses? What rights are you surrendering, and what happens to the profits from those rights? What happens to your work if the project fails to reach completion?

Apply the same considerations — and scrutiny — to the agreement as you would any publishing contract. And if the answer to a contract question is, “We don’t use contracts,” thank them loudly so they can hear you as you run away at top speed.

6. Weigh the risks.

The benefits should be commensurate with the risk. If you’re contributing flash fiction, or perhaps an older work that’s been languishing on your backlist, your investment may be small. But if you’re being asked to contribute something more substantial, consider just how many hours of your time went into creating that work, and whether you’re comfortable entrusting that to the project organizer.

7. Consider whether you may accomplish more for charity on your own.

If you want to donate to a cause, there is nothing preventing you from donating whatever share of your profits you wish. You control the amount, the terms, the recipients, and the marketing, without obligations or deadlines.

Depending on your work style, this may be a more effective and more satisfying way of contributing to charity than depending on others. There is, however, great satisfaction in working with others to multiply the benefit, so consider both approaches.

Over to you

Have you taken part in a charity publication? How did it turn out? Let us know in the comments below!

What should #IndieAuthors know before joining a charity anthology? — @johndopp Click To Tweet

John Doppler

From the sunny California beaches where he washed ashore in 2008, John Doppler scrawls tales of science fiction, urban fantasy, and horror -- and investigates self-publishing services as the Alliance of Independent Authors's Watchdog. John relishes helping authors turn new opportunities into their bread and butter and offers terrific resources for indie authors at Words on Words. He shares his lifelong passion for all things weird and wonderful on The John Doppler Effect.

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Don’t forget there are other ways writers can help charities without offering up their work. I am a member of my local branch of the Motor Neurone Disease Association; I write their quarterly newsletter and help with their website. This involves quite a few hours writing so I feel as if I’ve contributed. Because it’s completely separate from my creative writing, it avoids the complications John mentions.

  2. I’d like to add a couple of points to the list here.

    1) If you are contributing a piece of writing to a book being published for charity, make it clear that you retain the copyright, and that you are only granting them the right to print it once in this publication – that way, you can repurpose the copy in other places eg publish it in your next collection of short stories, use it as a reader newsletter magnet, or whatever, as appropriate. That should be sufficient for the purposes of their anthology. If they plan to do anything further with it in future eg turn it into an audiobook, they must clear that with you again.

    2) If you are taking the route of publishing a book yourself in aid of a charity, make sure you contact that charity beforehand, not only out of courtesy, but because charities, like any commercial enterprise, have house styles and standards to maintain eg how their charity is described or the exact name to be stated. They will also want to make sure that your book is on-message with their corporate values. I know this sounds harsh when you are putting yourself out to help them, but they are just being responsible about their brand, and you are both on the same side really! I was quite taken aback when I was asked by my chosen charity to send a copy of my ms for their legal department to inspect, but in the end the result was completely win-win – not only did they approve my copy, but the CEO of the charity kindly offered to write what turned out to be a glowing endorsement that served as an introduction to the book. Another reason to work hand-in-hand with your chosen charity is that they often have celebrity supporters who may be willing to add a cover endorsement to your book. (I got one myself by tweeting the famous journalist that supported the charity directly myself, but the charity would have helped if need be.)

    3) Finally, unless your book is exceptionally brilliant and somehow goes viral, don’t expect to make a fortune for your charity – but on the other hand, it is very satisfying to feel that you are using your special skills and strengths as a writer to support a cause close to your heart. My book doesn’t sell in huge numbers, but having taken the time to write it and set it up, it now contributes a modest but steady income stream for the charity. I would much rather help my favourite charities by writing than by running marathons or similar!

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