Sunday, May 5, 2013

On discovering a "first sale" I somehow never knew about

For years I've had dreams in which I discover a cache of stories I've written and completely forgotten about, only to discover them with amazement and delight. What's just happened to me shares something of the feel of those dreams-- only with an unpleasant affect.

Thanks to Google Scholar, I just this afternoon learned-- 24 years after the fact-- that a story of mine was published without my permission or even knowledge in the minnesota review. Though this is not exactly catastrophic news, it's turned my stomach inside-out and is making my brain buzz with so much noise that I'm finding it difficult to concentrate on anything else. Perhaps the best way of putting it is to say that my sense of reality feels threatened. (I'm expecting that this rocky feeling will vanish soon, when I've processed this revision of my personal history.) What adds an extra little force to the punch is that this would have been my first sale (had my permission for publication been solicited by the journal).

 One part of me is trying to imagine the difference this sale would have made to me in 1989 (the year I made my first sale, "O's Story," to Susana Sturgis for her Crossing Press anthology Memories and Visions: Women's Fantasy and Science Fiction), when I had given up on marketing the Marq'ssan Cycle or indeed any of my novels and was trying to break into the short fiction market. When I didn't hear back from the minnesota review after ten months, I assumed they'd rejected the story, "Ms. Peach Makes a Run for Coffee," and next tried Interzone-- around the time the minnesota review published it. The story then received 19 rejections from a mix of literary and genre magazine, until Terra Incognita bought first serial rights to its publication in 1996. Some of the rejections were brutal, because the story was overtly political. It went through numerous line-edits over those years. So the version published by the minnesota review is slightly different from the one published in Terra Incognita. I have no idea why the editors published it without contacting me. But I do note that the contributors page omits my name-- presumably because they did not solicit a bio from me.

Another part of me is wondering whether I've been naive about this. I always tell writing students that reputable publications do not publish submissions without permission-- that they have little to fear from publications with an established reputation. I'd probably say that still--and yet, I wonder whether I ought to. This strangely improbable thing happened to me-- something I wouldn't have known about if Project MUSE hadn't archived old pre-internet issues and Google hadn't included that issue in its search. One part of me is sure there must be some benign explanation. Some mix up in paper work. An overworked assistant dropping the ball. Is that naive? I don't think so. As a publisher myself, I know enough about the nuts and bolts of publishing to imagine such a thing happening even with the best intentions.

 A third part of me worries about a question I can't answer and might need an attorney to instruct me on: did minnesota review's appropriation of my work rob me of my rights? Did I lose the rights to that story after they pirated it? I fervently hope not. I've had it posted on my website for free download for several years now-- not knowing that someone else had published it first. And it would seem the height of injustice that their violation of my copyright would result in my loss of ownership. (Which is not to say that even more egregious injustices don't often happen.) Ought I to remove "Ms. Peach" from my website?

And yet another part of me-- the part that is always producing sfnal thoughts-- is yearning to imagine an alternate history, in which I received an acceptance letter informing me of my first sale (likely prior to my sale of "O's Story"). Would it have made any difference to me? After all, I'd already written "The Forbidden Words of Margaret A." and "Sadness Ineffable, Desire Ineluctable" and was at the peak of my political activism and about to go on to write The Red Rose Rages (Bleeding)." Probably it wouldn't have substantially affected my writing or my self-confidence (except to make me interested in submitting to that journal again-- which I never did, simply because they couldn't be bothered to send me even a form rejection). So, no significantly divergent alternate history. But in a way, it feels as though two splits in the historical thread have suddenly converged. I suppose this is because something involving myself happened that I've only now become conscious of. As though where my own words have been can't have happened in real time unless I know about those places... which is just wrong, of course. People usually have to learn the hard way that once something's been out on the internet--say, posted to an obscure list-serv, it's to all intents and purposes there for good. And now it seems unaccepted submissions to pre-internet print publications may fall into the same category, too. (God knows I've learned that pre-internet letters to the editor, invidiously doctored by the editors, are now out and accessible on the internet.)  

(The image shown, by the way, is W. Gregory Stewart's illustration to "Ms. Peach Makes a Run for Copy" published in the first issue of Terra Incognita.)


Debbie Notkin said...

I am not an attorney, but I do publishing rights work for a living. I am 99.994% sure that there is no way they could acquire any rights in your work unless you signed a contract granting those rights.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks, Debbie, you reassure me! It's what I thought, but the law doesn't necessarily accord with common-sense understanding-- given its possession of a logic so peculiarly its own.

A brief followup: a bit of sleep (however disrupted & fragmentary) has put me back into my right mind. Yesterday afternoon & evening witnessed a consuming struggle between my rational self telling me that this was, proportionately, a very small thing & my emotional self feeling stunned & battered. In other words, this may prove a useful experience for someone who writes fiction, even if it doesn't yield useful advice for how to avoid such confusions in the future...