Due to last year’s novel fail, I’m still way behind on my podcasts and I just now listened to the Dirty Old Ladies’ episode on Spec Work from February and it got me thinking. In literature, there’s a lot of spec work. It seems that unlike in comics, spec work in literature is mostly a lot better, though. Mostly, if they don’t pay you, you also keep the rights to your work. Almost everyone writes their first novel on spec. The vast majority of short stories are written on spec.
In fiction, the way most people work, you write a short story then start submitting it to magazines and anthologies and maybe someone wants it. When you get well-known enough, some of the magazines and anthologies start soliciting you for work. But even then, when people decided to do something else with their careers or just write something for fun, it’s on spec. As far as I know, Seanan McGuire writes the Velveteen vs series always on spec.
On the other hand, a fair number of more established writers can sell books on proposal. This usually means that the author submits a pitch of a few sentences, an outline, and/or a chapter or two. If I recall correctly, Mur Lafferty has mentioned that she sold her novel Six Wakes on a podcast.
What seems to be most different to as compared to comics is, indeed, that throughout the submission process, the author keeps the copyright of the work. Even after the piece is published, the author owns the copyright, licensing parts of it to the publisher. As with any other business, there are conmen around, some of whom will try to cheat writers out of their copyright. This is a really important for especially the beginning writers to know. The money flows toward the writer and you never, ever give up your copyright. No legitimate publisher will ever ask you to turn over your copyright.
This is why it’s very important to read all the terms of service for competitions. Some shady people run competitions and ask for the copyrights of all the people submitting in the hopes of snaring some very good writers when they’re still new enough to know better.
Then again, this is also true:
The power in publishing is weird, to say the least. Technically, there’s an infinity of new writers coming to take the place of older, more established writers, making it a buyer’s market. That also means that the writers trying to get in are endlessly waiting and putting new stuff out there. I’ve written somewhere between 3 and 7 novels that will never see the light of day. Countless short stories. Technically, I still own all of them, they’re just practically worthless except as something that brought me closer to the writer I am today. In my experience, on spec manuscripts in fiction are mainly a neutral thing. But it’s good to be aware of how they may be different in other fields.