Learning About Permissions

This isn’t really an issue most fiction writers or poets deal with but the obstacle of Permissions is — at least it seems to me — every nonfiction and academic writer’s worst nightmare.

This is the point in the nonfiction writer’s work where they must pause before quoting that entire poem or those seven lines of text and ask themselves: How much is this one going to cost me? Permissions are, of course, extremely important — this is a part of how we keep our publishers happy, our literary agencies happy, and our author’s intellectual belongings secure. However, when you’re endeavoring to write a book almost entirely based upon poetry analysis and examination, the costs can rocket upward so fast you’ll wake up on the moon and wonder how you got there.

If you are (or were) anything like me starting out, this reality never occurred to you. As a junior English/American Studies double major in undergraduate, I suppose I just thought that all my textbooks got together and decided to be socialists sharing all of their information and ideas with each other as freely and openly as the Beats shared theirs. Of course, this naïveté was soon to erupt when my editor (a truly darling and wonderful fellow), politely reminded me that I was going to need to ask permission to utilize A.G.’s “Howl” — and more than ask, I was going to need to pay for that permission. And pay a lot.

Fortunately for me though, when I went in to ask for permissions from both HarperCollins and the Wiley Agency, my apparent ineptness and blind ignorance about the realities of publishing costs actually earned me some much needed sympathy and guidance.  I wouldn’t bank on this happening to you as the people of the permissions world are incredibly busy folk (in fact, I’m sure they’re still scratching their heads wondering why they gave me anything at all) but the lesson to come of this is that the people working in permissions are not there to haunt or harvest you — they honestly are there to help you and want your work to succeed just as much as you, your editor, your family, and your pet goldfish Detective Clearwater do. In other words, don’t hate on the permissions guy just because he or she has to be the one to tell you, “This will cost at least XXXX,” and “Know that we’re never going to be able to let you have these permissions for this little again.” (Oy vey!)

In fact, my experience with the publishing industry has been one of profound understanding and collaboration, with everyone working with me as I wade my way through all the new and wily wilderness with extreme patience and generosity. My advice would be to always remind yourself that as a writer you are dependent upon the work and honesty of many, many other people who all have different goals and priorities than you do — so even if the price seems steep, even if the tone of their email doesn’t sound exactly cheerful, don’t take it to heart and don’t assume they meant to hurt or stop or hinder you. The art of collaboration necessitates both patience and the ability to recognize that there is a world outside your text, and that world does, in fact, hope you will succeed (even if it’s grumpy, frustrated, pricey, or distracted).

Keep on keepin’ on!

Also, some neat publishing opportunities:

The Humanities Education and Research Association’s Scholarly Journal: Interdisciplinary Humanities is a refereed scholarly journal, published three times a year.  — And they’re currently accepting submissions for articles pertaining to Service-Learning. (Submissions due by May 1st, 2012)


Glimmer Train (literary magazine) currently has a Fiction Short Story contest open (submissions due by March 31st, 2012).

Bon chance!


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