Sunday, 4 December 2011

Publishing and Charities: Supportive or Exploitative?

As a publisher supporting a charity at events and also with a competition offering publication of a short collection to the winner I’m very aware of the dangers if this is handled in the wrong way. Publishing can really help a charity – the Lumen/Camden Poetry Competition attracted more than 1,000 entries in its first year and raised more than £2,000 for the homeless in two North London Cold Weather Shelters.

Sales of the short collection we published for the winner (An Apple Tree Spouts Philosophy) are still adding to that figure, and the competition also helped launch the winner Caroline Squire as a poet who deserved to have a book out and to be noticed.

I was immediately approached by agencies wanting to manage this competition and publication for us, which draws attention to the fact that there’s money to be made from such ventures. Of course I didn’t accept these offers. None of the organisers of this competition take a penny in income, so there would be no commission for an agency.

The idea for the competition came from Ruth O’Callaghan, the poet who runs the twice-monthly Lumen and Camden Poetry Series of events, combining poetry performance by published poets with open mic from the audience and the chance to submit to her annual charity anthology. These events and anthology add about £4,000 more to the total raised for the homeless.

All of this raises a high percentage of the money needed to keep the Cold Weather Shelters going – the last time I heard it was 60% and I’m sure it’s still growing. So it’s a good thing when publishers support charities, isn’t it? Or are there mistakes that can be made?

An article in The Big Issue this week reminded me of the risks, and I’m more than aware of them already. In the article readers were warned about online sellers offering Christmas cards to support charities. Even the reputable shops selling greetings cards for charities typically give only 20-25% to the cause, perhaps less. At the most, a good retailer like WH Smith, might give 70%.

This is often used purely as a way of boosting sales, and a number of the online sellers pay a minimal 1% to the charities. So, supporting a charity can be part of a marketing drive, rather than a genuine effort to help.

As publishers, authors, and book buyers we need to be aware of this, and as competition entrants too. When we see that a competition, an anthology asking for submissions, or any book is being sold in aid of a charity, we need to know how much of the income is actually going to be handed over.

As a publisher I’m very aware that I could get this wrong, and the only way I can see of doing it is if we take absolutely nothing for Ward Wood Publishing and give all proceeds to the charity. Carol Ann Duffy takes no fee for judging the competition, and Ruth O’Callaghan also works with me at organising the entries and passing them on. Taking no income from charity work does simplify matters.

I do understand why publishers sometimes take a commission for this work and I don’t blame them for it. The work involved in organising and promoting the competition was pretty heavy. I was worn out by the time the deadline arrived. If you don’t keep promoting a competition you risk getting too few entries and we wanted to raise as much as possible for the charity.

The entries had to be accepted, entrants advised that their entry had been received if they paid and submitted via the website, and all entries passed to Ruth O’Callaghan who then organised it for Carol Ann Duffy. The number of entries as the deadline approached meant I was dealing with a huge amount of email.

But I’m not sure a commission based on a percentage of fees or sales is the right way to respond to this kind of workload. Generally, when publishers produce anthologies for charities, they might charge a 30% admin fee. I’m not sure how much agencies charge to organise this for a publisher. When we were organising the competition last year people told me I should be taking this fee.

I wouldn’t have felt happy about taking £600 from the £2,000 we raised, because I don’t think people entering a charity competition would be expecting that, so I didn’t want to take the standard 30% admin fee. People want their entry fees to go to the charity. I think people would accept specific costs being taken from the entry fee, such as printing and postage. We did calculate just over £100 for this as these are unavoidable costs and we arranged as low a fee with the printer as we could.

It’s better to detail these costs and explain clearly how much is to be taken out of the proceeds. A 30% admin fee could be very little, or it could be way too much in the case of a successful competition like ours. It wouldn’t cover the hours we have to spend working on it, but I’m not comfortable taking an income from any charity project.

Of course, this means we can’t do too many. We can probably only do one or two because the work has to be completely voluntary. But, in my opinion, this is the only way to go. People may disagree with me. It might be that it’s seen to be a good idea for publishers to make income from taking a percentage from charity publications, and agencies may also be welcome.

Charity anthologies do offer all the writers submitting a chance to get into print. They can supply some income for the publisher – perhaps a reasonable amount to cover the hours spent working. And they support the charities.

All opinions would be welcome on this subject. I’ve been careful about it since my first collection was accepted in the 1980s and I wanted to support the homeless in a Kilburn soup kitchen and hostel with a percentage of the sales income. The publisher advised me not to, as he said too many people did it and it could look like a marketing ploy to increase my sales.


  1. This is an interesting one. i agree with you that a competition should be organised on a voluntary basis, people paying to enter a charity competition want to see the money go to the charity after all! On the other hand, there are lots of services that are offered by businesses to charities and where is the line that divides that which should be done on a voluntary basis and what should be paid for? Of course it partly depends on the size and resources of both charity and business but there is a potential issue there perhaps.

  2. It is tricky. We do all find it acceptable that the major charities need to pay their workers and pay for marketing and other services. Would I feel comfortable bringing out a number of charity anthologies to help the charities, help new poets get published, and make an income? I wouldn't. But I don't really think it's wrong of others. However, I think it's important to be completely transparent and let the writers know exactly how much goes to the charity and how much is paid to the organisers.

  3. As you know,this whole idea of using art for social change is very near and dear to me these days. i am actually developing a program and a couple of lectures on the subject that I'll be giving in the spring (both here and in the US). I believe that, now more than ever, we can use our art to further social good, but we have to be careful about how and whether we ask others for help. You are absolutely correct about that. No on wants their charitable pound/dollar to go to admin. That is an age old problem. But of course, many charitable activities can not go forward without a great deal of admin, and sometimes people do need to be paid. The answer may come in keeping the efforts very local, small and sporadic, so that people with huge hearts like you can continue to help without burying their businesses or themselves in the meantime.


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