Writing Rights—personal perspectives

In his Writing Rights session, David Scott Hamilton made an incredibly important point when he described asking for a royalty in his contract negotiations with Anvil. The publisher showed him the numbers and said, *We just can’t do it.”

That conversation really underscored that building a productive publisher–translator relationship is a two-way street—mutual respect is key. The subsequent discussions during the workshop about concerns over relinquishing control by assigning copyright and ways to negotiate the best contract might imply an adversarial relationship, but having worked at a publishing house, let me offer this perspective:  publishers, in the vast majority of cases, aren’t out to screw authors over, just as authors who leave a small press after achieving some success to work with a bigger company aren’t trying to screw over their former publishers. Publishing is a business—one in which, especially in the literary world, margins are simply razor thin. Of course I’m by no means suggesting that artists shouldn’t try to negotiate a favourable contract—on the contrary. However, I think it’s important to highlight the fact that most publishers, particularly small literary presses, aren’t prolific money-making enterprises. Most are doing the best they can with what they have, and I think a more productive relationship would ultimately result if writers and translators approached their negotiations with that understanding in mind. It’s not so much that publishers want to hand artists the short end of the stick but that, in Canadian publishing, both ends of the stick can end up pretty short.

That said, I did very much appreciate and admire Martha Rans’s fervent advocacy on behalf of the artistic community. For artists whose work is exploited, having support like the Artists’ Legal Outreach can be invaluable.

When I attended Chang Han’s intellectual property session at Freelance Camp, I was left with a niggling question. Sure, you’re theoretically protected by a framework of copyright laws, but if someone infringes, not only do you have to discover the infringement, but you also have to be prepared to pursue legal action in the infringer’s jurisdiction. Rans’s comment about the difficulty of enforcement, particularly across borders, filled in the critical missing piece in my understanding.

Carolyn Swayze’s session consisted mainly of anecdotes from her work as an agent, and they were interesting—I didn’t know much about literary scouts before her talk—but the outline of the workshop implied she’d be discussing the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada’s model contract, which she didn’t address. I would have liked to see the anatomy of a translation contract to discover how much it jibed with my own experiences working with translators for a publisher. Luckily, it appears that the comprehensive LTAC booklet accompanying the workshop has all of that information and more—including foreign funding sources for translations.

Overall, Writing Rights was a very informative workshop, and I got to meet some terrific people. I’m amazed that it was free—another big thank-you to LTAC, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Department of Canadian Heritage for sponsoring the event. If I could have made one suggestion, it would have been to make the day’s program available on the Word on the Street website prior to the workshop. I could find very little information about it, even the morning of, and I didn’t know what kinds of speakers and sessions would be featured until I arrived; knowing the workshop structure would have allowed for better planning on my part.

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