Rights Concerns: Simon451 Novel-Writing Contest for Students

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Recently, Big 5 publisher Simon & Schuster announced the launch of two adult trade speculative fiction imprints: Saga Press, which will do both print and digital, and Simon451, which will also do print and digital, but will concentrate on digital-firsts and ebook originals. Simon451 currently is accepting submissions from unagented authors.

Simon451 is also running a novel-writing contest for college students. Students submit a synopsis ad the first 50 pages of a novel. A panel of judges will select ten finalists, who will be asked to submit their entire manuscripts. The winner receives a publishing contract with Simon451, a $3,000 advance, and a trip to NY Comicon.

In the past weeks, I've heard from a number of writers who are wondering about an apparent rights-grab in the contest guidelines (you can download the guidelines here). The language that's the source of concern appears in two places. First, on page 2 of the guidelines, where it refers to the initial 50-page submission, a.k.a. the Initial Entry:
Submission of an Initial Entry grants Sponsor and their agents the unconditional, irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide right to excerpt in part or whole, use, adapt, edit and/or modify such Entry in any way, in any and all media, without limitation, and without consideration to the entrant, whether or not such Entry is selected as a winning Entry.
The writers who've contacted me worry that this is a rights grab enabling S&S to do anything it wants with their 50 pages, including steal their ideas and give them to others. I frankly think that's highly unlikely. As one of the USA's biggest trade publishers, S&S is drowning in submissions; I really doubt they need to pilfer ideas (which, in any case, aren't protected by copyright law).

A more realistic concern is that this language could empower S&S to produce an anthology of the best entries, without compensation to the entrants--though again, I don't know how likely that is. Overall, my feeling is that the intent is principally to enable S&S to display contest entries online, and also possibly to archive them once the contest is done. Entrants should think about whether they want their entries archived; but I don't think they need to fear theft.

What if you become a finalist, though, and are asked to submit your entire manuscript? Per pages 3 and 4 of the guidelines, you are subject to the exact same grant of rights, expressed in identical language. The only difference is the use of the term "Entry," rather than "Initial Entry," referring to the full manuscript:
Submission of an Entry grants Sponsor and its agents the unconditional, irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide right to excerpt in part or whole, use, adapt, edit and/or modify such Entry in any way, in any and all media, without limitation, and without consideration to the entrant, whether or not such Entry is selected as a winning Entry.
Now, as I said, I don't for a second think that S&S is in the business of theft-by-contest. But we're talking now about full manuscripts, which--unlike excerpts--aren't routinely posted online before they're actually published.

I don't see why, for this part of the contest, such sweeping language was necessary--or why it couldn't at least have been qualified by limiting the grant of rights to the contest itself (for instance, by adding "for the purposes of this contest" after "entrant")--even though I would still, in that case, wonder about archiving. In fact, we don't know what plans S&S may (or may not) have for those ten full manuscripts, or what they feel they need this language to empower them to do. All in all, I personally would be very hesitant to submit my entire manuscript to a contest where submission meant granting the contest sponsor such a vague and open-ended claim on my work.

I'd be interested in hearing from readers with legal expertise. What do you think? Please weigh in.

EDITED 7/16/14 TO ADD: In response to questions from several writers, Simon451 has confirmed that it does not intend to hold rights past the conclusion of the contest. Here's their exact response, shared with me by one of the writers who contacted them (Simon451's bolding):
Please note further that S&S has no intention of using any non-winning Submissions except for purposes of the contest.

The goal of the contest is to identify potential new talent and grant the Grand Prize winner a book contract to help [the] Grand Prize winner realize his/her talent. The intent is not to take or use non-winning Entries beyond the scope of the contest.
One wonders why the actual language of the guidelines couldn't have included this.

2 comments to Rights Concerns: Simon451 Novel-Writing Contest for Students

  • Jeff Isaak

    I was digging around on the Simon451 site, and I can’t see if their regular submissions have the same rights claim as their contest. Any thoughts?

    As for the contest rules, I’m no legal expert, but deal with contracts regularly at work, and those clauses make me nervous. It made our paralegal shudder.

  • Victoria Strauss

    I really doubt that the regular submission guidelines would include any rights claims–if they did, it would be highly unusual (not to mention completely unnecessary). Sometimes publishers will ask for waivers similar to the one in the contest guidelines–i.e., you acknowledge that they may receive or publish submissions that are similar to yours and if they do, they have no obligation to you–but those are intended to head off frivolous plagiarism lawsuits, not encumber to rights. I expect the guidelines are something special the legal department dreamed up, and the folks at Simon451 probably didn’t really think about the implications.

    As one commenter on my other blog said, the assurance here is that this is a major, respected publisher, and thus very unlikely to do hinky stuff like publish your non-winning contest ms. without paying you for it. You don’t have that assurance, though, if you find such language in the contest guidelines of a small press. So you need to put things in context–but just on general principal, I think it’s best to be wary no matter where you find legal language that disturbs you.

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