Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Are Playwrights Getting A Raw Deal? One Publisher Looks to Change The Industry Standard

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Cote-Walkden, author, editor and publisher with Writers AMuse Me Publishing. We sat down and had a very interesting discussion about her publishing houses recent decision to open their submission boxes for plays. Her publishing house is doing things a bit differently. Are they changing the industry standard?



Your publishing house recently opened its submission box to include Plays. What prompted this decision?

Unlike authors, who have a growing list of options for publishing their books, playwrights don’t have that. There are a handful of big houses, and that’s about it. One of the reasons for this is because publishing plays is a bit more labor-intensive, but the other part of the equation is that you don’t really ‘sell’ the play; it’s more like you rent it out for others to use.

That said, there ARE sales for perusal copies and performing copies of the play. From the current roster of publishing houses that deal in plays, there is not one penny from the sale of those copies of the scripts that goes to the playwright. Let me say that again... the playwright sees no royalty from the sale of their scripts. If your play has ten characters, there are ten ‘book’ sales, plus directors, lighting, etc, who also need copies of the play, so it’s now 15 copies, plus the perusal copies that were bought before the play was even started. It’s wrong that the playwright sees none of that money. The only royalties they get are based on the actual performance rights.

I know a number of excellent playwrights. It’s wrong that they don’t get paid for their written word. Perhaps this is tilting at windmills, but the industry standard is horribly unfair. A writer – any writer – should be paid for his words when they are sold.

Also, there are some ways that plays can be made more affordable to the small groups that want some options for their production clubs and companies. We want to give them more options, and more availability for plays.

Can you explain the difference in how a novelist is paid as opposed to how a playwright is paid?

When a play is ‘sold’, the purchaser – usually a production company, community theater, school or drama club – signs a contract that specifies the dates they will be doing the play, the number of performances and the number of seats in the theater that could potentially be sold. The contract is reviewed to make sure there are no other performances of that play at the same time within a specific radius, then the materials are shipped to the purchaser for them to use for those specified performances only. There is a trust factor involved, to be sure, but with internet now, it’s a lot easier to make sure the play isn’t being performed illegally. The playwright receives a small percentage of the performance rights only. A novelist gets a percentage of each book sold.

How are you looking to change this? 

We’re looking at a number of changes. Obviously the first change is to make sure the playwright gets a royalty based on the sales of his scripts. We’re also going to offer the scripts digitally. Yes, we know that some will argue that to do so opens the play up to being illegally copied or shared. Yes, it does, but in a day and age when we all have scanners, printers and photocopiers sitting on our desks, that is possible with just about anything. We watch for those illegal activities the same way every other play publisher does. Having bundled digital versions makes for an affordable, quick, green way to do the plays.

We’re also looking at, when we open to musicals, changing things up there as well. The industry standard is that musical scores, etc, are ‘rented’ to the production group. That means the publisher packs up boxes full of binders, ships them to the group, then waits for them to come back. When they are returned in proper condition, the group gets a refund of some of their money, but the rental costs and shipping costs are huge. This was done to prevent, again, illegal copying. I again say that with all of us having instant access to copy machines, if they want to copy, they will copy, so why not just streamline the system and sell them the music? It makes doing a musical more affordable for the production company, and a whole lot easier for everyone.

Our contracts ALL allow for video rights for the production company. We know it happens. You cannot stop people from copying a performance on their phones or cameras when again, everyone has that capability right in their pocket. What we do is sell the rights to allow for the production company to film the performance, then make and distribute up to 100 copies. It gives the production company the opportunity to help out with their financial bottom line, it gets the plays seen by more people, and it gives the playwright some money for what we know will happen anyway. There are, of course, limitations on what the production company can do and where they can use the video, but we think that this is a valuable piece of the puzzle.

We also are changing how artwork and posters are handled. They are typically sold optionally with the play, and in most cases, they are not purchased because they are cost-prohibitive. For any small production organization to have to pay the extra for this is a lot to ask, but it is a missed opportunity for the publisher and the playwright to get what is essentially brand name recognition. You see anything with a white face mask and you know it’s the Phantom. In order to make the artwork affordable for the end user, instead of having artists on contract to do the art on our behalf (giving the artist a one-time payment for their work, no matter how many times it gets used), our artists are not on staff, and they provide the artwork on a royalty basis, meaning that for each time the poster or playbill is purchased for a production, the artist gets paid a royalty. This makes it more affordable for the production group, which in turn helps to create that recognition with the end product.

Why do you think these are important changes to make? 

Up to now, the lion’s share of the money generated by a play lands in the publisher’s pocket, to the detriment of the playwright. That’s wrong. The playwright should be given a royalty on the sale of each copy of their work, and plays should be more accessible to everyone. They are a vital part of any community structure. We need to work to maintain that.

Do you think this will catch on at other publishing houses? 

We can hope so, but I doubt the traditional long-standing publishing houses will change their position. They are used to the money going to them – from the video rights, the copy sales, the rentals for music and scores, for artwork. Hopefully there will be a few more options for playwrights, but it won’t be easy. We know that, but we’re a pretty determined bunch. We have some excellent editors and consultants with decades of experience in the theater in many capacities. If we can bring about some change that makes sure the playwrights get what they should be getting, then that’s all the better.

What kind of plays are you looking for? 

Right now we are open to full length plays and to one-act plays. Down the road, we will also open up to musicals. We will not be considering ten-minute plays. They simply don’t work with this business model.

Any final thoughts on the subject? 

We live in a time where money is a bit harder to come by. We are seeing schools and colleges cut back on many programs, and unfortunately art programs seem to be the first thing on the chopping block. We need to make some changes so that we don’t lose access to something so vital to our society as a play production. The value of entertainment is always under rated in these discussions, but we need it. We need to be able to see ourselves as we are, we need to see society as it is, and we need to have that release. Plays have existed almost for as long as society has – longer than television, longer than movies – and I think there is a reason that performers who appear on screen often find their way back to the stage. We can’t lose that. Plays need to be accessible to all ages, to all income levels, and with the current structure for publishing them, it becomes more of a challenge for groups to be able to perform them. There also is NO reason why a playwright is not paid for his written words. To me, that’s inexcusable.

So there you have it folks! Get your playwright friends over to the Writers AMuse Me Publishing website.
If you're a blogger, please feel free to reblog this interview. You can also contact me and I will forward the original email to you. Just remember to link back here, pretty please.

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