Patreon and Publication Rights

This discussion started on Twitter, and I am moving it here because I feel this is a developing and gray area of publishing.

Question is: are locked works posted on Patreon for pay considered published?

Responses from SFWA-qualifying markets, from 2014, are collated here. (I just saw this link when Amal mentioned it on Twitter).

What I publish on my Birdverse Patreon are mostly: drawings (irrelevant), poems, and serialized novella drafts. I have not completed posting the novellas because I am still working on them, and both would undergo revising before they are ready for publication. I have recently found out that many, if not most markets would consider my Patreon-sponsored locked work published.

This is really perplexing to me. My feel of Patreon was, “A small number of Birdverse fans support me while I create more Birdverse stories and poems; in return, they get previews of work and glimpses into my process, as well as freebies, acknowledgments, and my undying gratitude.”

My thinking went like this:

A patron of the arts is a person who supports the artist so the art can be created. When I am supported in the process of creating, I can create more art. When a venue buys a piece of writing, this venue buys the right to distribute it worldwide, and the author can get nominated for awards in the year it was purchased.  I understand the hesitation if the number of patrons exceeds, say, 100 – but in case of under 20 patrons, I simply don’t see how a work can be considered already distributed. Plus,  I don’t think a locked piece on Patreon can be nominated for awards, though I am not sure.

I have not expected what I basically felt was a small group of patrons supporting a creator while they create work for publication to turn into something that blocks this creator’s ability to publish.

Complicating issues in my particular setup:

  • most poetry markets pay 5$-10$ per poem
  • no SFF market afaik pays per poem as much I get per poem on my Patreon
  • but I have no issue selling work traditionally, and my published work gets eyeballs
  • I have 19 backers, so only 19 people see the works; my nonpaying readership is bigger.
  • most poetry markets do not take reprints.
  • most prose venues do not take reprints.
  • novella markets are really scarce.
  • novella markets that do exist tend not to pay SFWA professional rates of 6c a word.

What’s further complicates the issue is that most venues do not have a posted policy regarding where they stand on this issue.

I published all of my work traditionally so far. I have a long bibliography and I know that I can and very likely will sell traditionally again. But if Patreon will, basically, impede my ability to publish traditionally, I am not at all sure that I will abandon Patreon.

This is interesting. Mostly because, up until very recently, I regarded self-publishing as Something Cool, but Not for Me.

One last thought: in poetry, there is a long-standing custom of writing for fundraisers. I have created any number of poems for fundraisers, and so have many other speculative poets. Then, after some money for the piece has already changed hands, these pieces were sold as originals and traditionally published.

I would very much welcome a discussion of this!

14 Comments

  1. Lisa Bradley says:

    “in poetry, there is a long-standing custom of writing for fundraisers…after some money for the piece has already changed hands, these pieces were sold as originals and traditionally published.”

    I…did not know that was possible. Do you explain about the fundraiser in the cover letter?

    • Rose says:

      Sometimes, sometimes not – I talked to the relevant editors and they told me it was fine and a common practice…

      I wish there was more transparency about this :/

  2. Gabriel Novo says:

    It’s interesting to see such a diverse set of opinions regarding Patreon. I guess it’s the money which changes things for most editors.

    Then again, I was surprised by a couple of the “Nos” Andrea received. It shows that the Internet still isn’t fully understood by some publishing professionals. A locked piece of writing shouldn’t be considered published because that would disqualify a ton of writers in online writing groups and critiquing forums.

    Of course, that’s if they disclose the critiques/locked forum posts in their cover letters. I’m positive some stories have slipped through the cracks to publication.

  3. This is a tricky question (I know we were talking on Twitter, but just restating some things I think here).

    >>What’s further complicates the issue is that most venues do not have a posted policy regarding where they stand on this issue.

    I think the reason for that is that this is a new enough thing to have not needed a policy before. I asked the same question last year of Neil Clarke and John Joseph Adams and they gave the same answer as they gave here, which if I can’t get a large Patreon backing, then why would I put stories on there–burning up first publication rights when I know that only 2 or 3 people have read it. (I have two patrons right now, I have many more donors through PayPal, not sure how to deal with the two inputs since there are recurring donors in both).

    When I opened for slush at Diabolical Plots last year, one author queried me on the topic of whether I considered a locked Patreon story to be previously published or not. I ended up going with the answer I’d heard from Neil Clarke and JJA, still not entirely sure where I stand as a permanent stance.

  4. >>I understand the hesitation if the number of patrons exceeds, say, 100 – but in case of under 20 patrons, I simply don’t see how a work can be considered already distributed.

    That was my first thought. But other distribution channels don’t depend on numbers to tell you when it’s published. If I post a story on my blog, and my Google Analytics registers 20 lifetime hits on the post, can I call that unpublished? What if I don’t have a way to track the number of hits? What if I post an ebook for sale on Amazon and 5 people buy it? These other things would all be considered published by most people in the industry, I think, but what exactly is the difference? I don’t think it’s the number of the distribution. I think it’s the public statement of “I am offering these stories for your enjoyment”–you’re saying these stories are for the public if only you take this step to get them, and so that’s where it becomes “published”.

  5. >>A locked piece of writing shouldn’t be considered published because that would disqualify a ton of writers in online writing groups and critiquing forums.

    I don’t think that “locking” is the crux of the issue. IGMS has their content locked behind a subscription wall (historically they have anyway, I think they now post one or two issues at a time for free at any given moment). Jim Baen’s Universe did too when they were running. If IGMS puts a story behind that subscription wall, is that story unpublished? I think most people would argue that it is published.

    Some of the same editors who said No to this question have said that online critique forums that put stories behind a registration are totally okay. Baen’s Bar, Online Writer’s Workshop, Critters, etc. So what’s the difference? I think the difference is what the STATED INTENT of that posting is. If you post a story to Baen’s Bar, you are declaring “This is a work in progress that I would like to work the kinks out of and try to publish somewhere and I would like the help of my fellow writers to help me sort this out” You are NOT saying “Here’s a story for a fan to enjoy!”

    Could editors take a stance that posting to a non-public critique forum counts as publication? Sure, but it would be a counterproductive move. A lot of writers really hone their craft in such venues, and if they were widely disallowed, the quality of the slushpiles would suffer as a whole.

    In the Patreon reward case, yes it’s locked, but the offering of stories as a reward seemed to fall under the same category of intent as publishing a magazine, it is saying “If an SF fan pays money, I will give you stories to read and enjoy!” rather than the intent of the critique forum which is “Please, other writers, take a look at this and help me improve this work-in-progress”.

    The place that makes it really hard to figure out, for me, is that generally even a magazine that uses a subscription wall is going to have a public table of contents, so even if “AWESOME STORY X” can’t be found directly by Google, you can find its title in the public table of contents. But with Patreon rewards you may choose to not publicly disclose what you’re sharing with your patrons–you can quietly slip them the story, so no one but your patrons may know that AWESOME STORY X has been published. At that point I guess it becomes an ethical question of whether one must query before sending a story, on whether the editor will consider this published or not. I think that one probably ought to, though since I haven’ted published in Patreon at this point, I haven’t personally had to choose.

    • Rose says:

      David,

      You make many good points. However, I also invite you to consider whether the answers you received from Neil Clarke and JJA might be influencing your thinking. It’s a kind of cognitive thing that happens when one wants to avoid dissonance: “people I trust told me about Rule A, so I held by Rule A, and I can come up with reasons why Rule A makes perfect sense”. I wonder if an editor you trusted was An Owomoyela instead of JJA, who’d tell you “locked Patreon stories are fine,” your answers would have been different today.

      I think this can very easily swing both ways, and therein lies the difficulty.

      When I post poetry locked on LJ, from my perspective it serves the exact same purpose as Patreon (sans pay). I am not workshopping. People hardly ever suggest changes. I do often end up making changes and tweaks, but when I post a poem locked on LJ, it is a psychological thing rather than anything else. My readers, who’ve ofter followed me for many years, get an early preview of some of my poetry. And it makes me feel better – and fighing cockroaches easier – in knowing that this work was pre-approved and that I am not sending out duds. I have 200+ LJ followers, much more than I have Patreon subscribers. “Workshopping” is a copout label to describe this.

      Poems posted on LJ are not googlable; only followers know that they are there. Same with Patreon work, as you have said.

      When I self-publish on Amazon, I can put the title in my biblio. It is visible and googlable and random people can find it. What chance does a random reader have to learn about my novella on Patreon? None. It doesn’t even list the title of the locked posts.

      In addition, I think there is a difference between “I am publishing this whole story” and “I am putting up drafts in installments,” which I have been doing with my novellas. The poems are in near-final shape; the prose is not. I clearly labeled these installments as work in progress when they got sent out to patrons. I have NOT been offering finished work – these are drafts. There are very many ways to offer content on Patreon.

      Thank you very much for your thoughts – you’ve given me lots to think about.

      • It’s certainly true that Neil Clarke’s and JJA’s opinions on the matter have swayed my opinion, that was why I asked them after all. 🙂

        Since there’s no central authority to decide these kinds of things, what matters is what the editors you most want to try to sell to think. For me, those two editors are the editors I’d most like to work with, and so their opinions on the matter is of the most important for my own submission and publications–which is why for now I’m not considering publishing anything through Patreon.

        For accepting submissions, I probably could’ve gone either way. The reason I ended up deciding against in my slushpile is that I do think it’s reasonable for this corner case to be mentioned in cover letters to let the editor decide. But because I was using an anonymous slushpile and had no slushreaders, the system was set up to hide the cover letter until after the submission had been rejected or accepted. So, generally for any special requests (such as asking to submit something longer than the guidelines) I said no. so I went with the same answer here (for better or worse). The particular author submitted a different story within the window.

        I was not at all aware of the LJ case, but that does feel somewhat different to me, more of a limited sharing among friends with whom you have a mutual arrangement than a selling your work to whoever willingly pays you for the privilege.

        Also, as Charles says, standards are changing, attitudes are changing, Scalzi’s case a particular example. Ten years ago online publications weren’t taken very seriously as publication venues. Now many of the award-nominated works are from online mags like Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Tor.com. So if something was accepted as the norm some years ago, that doesn’t mean that the new norm is the same as the old norm.

  6. Terra says:

    One difference between Patreon and locked LJ posts—and please do correct me if I’m wrong—is that locked LJ posts are restricted to LJ users you have chosen to “friend” and allow to see the post. If I go friend you on LJ, you are not obligated to friend me back. I have no real control over whether I am allowed to see your locked post.

    However, Patreon, like Amazon or any periodical service with a paywall, is open to anyone with the cash to subscribe.

  7. Charles says:

    Hi Rose,

    I’ll just note some differences between the various models (I’m not necessarily saying these are enough to disregard or to include “first publication” status, merely that there are differences):

    LJ vs Patreon: In LJ, you, the creator, determine who can view the content (i.e. the public can’t unless you agree to do so). With Patreon, anyone willing to shell out the minimum amount will have access to it, without input from you.

    Baen vs Patreon: On Twitter, Baen’s pre-release/draft offer was stated. There’s a significant difference here as 1) the work has already been bought by a Publisher (Baen), 2) and there is a promise that it will be released “regularly” by the same Publisher at a later date. (Related but not identical to “when was it published” questions that arises from magazines, it’s the printed release date that’s counted as opposed to when the reader actually got it, which could be a month or two before the printed release date.)

    There is also the Brave New World we’re in, and standards are changing, as per #5 of Scalzi’s post at http://whatever.scalzi.com/2015/04/15/the-latest-hugo-conspiracy-nonsense-involving-me/

    I think SFWA is still finding a way to accommodate self-published work, but that’s only a recent development.

    • Charles,
      I think you’re talking about a different aspect of Baen that I was referring to (if your reference to Baen was in response to my reference to Baen, which maybe it wasn’t). I was referring to the Baen’s Bar short story critique forum. When I started posting stories there, it doubled as a submission venue for Jim Baen’s Universe, it’s now a submission venue for the Universe Annex section of Grantville Gazette. But mostly it’s a critique forum, stories posted there have not been committed on by Baen, or even seen by Baen before the posting.

  8. Oh!

    And to the subject of awards, which you raised on Twitter and we talked about there but I don’t think has come up on this post yet.

    For the Hugos, I don’t know of a precedent that would make it clear whether a Patreon-locked post is eligible for a Hugo in that year or not. I don’t believe there’s any way to get a decision made on such a thing without a precedent being set that puts the work potentially on the ballot so that the Hugo administration has to decide whether to allow the nomination or not. What we’d need to be able to tell for sure is a precedent and I don’t know of one. And the decisions made in cases like this don’t always make a ton of practical sense, like in the case of Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Lady Astronaut of Mars” which wasn’t allowed on the ballot in its year of publication because they decided it was a dramatic presentation from being published in audio, but when published in text the next year was allowed. http://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/perhaps-you-noticed-that-my-novelette-lady-astronaut-of-mars-had-enough-nominations-to-make-the-hugo-ballot/
    (I think that was a bad and short-sighted precedent to set, and a bad move by the Hugo administration)

    So if it did get nominated, then it would be up to the Hugo admin to allow or not allow and then that would be the precedent.

    One good news is that if releasing a larger work in installments, the whole work is eligible upon the completion of the final installment. This happens frequently with comic series like Schlock Mercenary, etc, or that big XKCD series last year–it’s not published until the last installment is done. So if you’re in the middle of releasing installments it’s not published yet one way or the other.

    If you wanted to make sure that such a work is clearly eligible, if this is important to you, I’d suggest making sure the final installment is shared to patrons early in a calendar year, and then wait 6 months and selfpub as an ebook on Amazon before the end of the calendar year (and like you said, give the ebook for free to your patrons). The early reading and ebook make sure your patrons feel good about the experience, and the selfpubbing on Amazon makes it absolutely clear that this story has been published in this year.

    This would mean that this work wouldn’t have any possibility of being a precedent as discussed earlier, but being a precedent comes with the risk of the work being disallowed, this one doesn’t.

    I have no idea if the Nebulas or other awards have a way to check for eligibility until a work ends up being in contention for the ballot. You might ask about that if there is someone to ask. I have not asked such questions about the Nebula before, or other awards.

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About

Rose Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Their work has appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Unlikely Story, Uncanny, and other venues, and has been a finalist for the Nebula, Tiptree, Elgin, Rhysling, and Crawford awards.

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