Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Self-Publishing Blues: The Headache of Lyric Licensing

It’s been a few weeks since my last post. I’ve been out of the country, traveling to South Africa where I saw zebras and giraffes and elephants up close. I even got to bottle feed a 6-week-old baby lion named Shamba, which was amazing!

While in Africa, I was disconnected: no cell phone service, no Internet, no email. It was kind of nice, actually, as I have been spending an inordinate amount of time on the computer lately. Most of my recent computer activity has revolved around the publishing of my book, The Deep Water Leaf Society: Harnessing the Transformative Power of Grief.

I made the decision to self-publish mostly because of my normal state of impatience. When I discovered that the traditional publishing process would mean a minimum of 18 months before my book might be in print, I decided that was far too long to wait. I wanted to get the book out yesterday!

I found a great consultant, Paul McNeese (see, who knows all the ins and outs of self-publishing and hired him to help me get my book out. When I hired him in March, I was thrilled with his assurance that we could have the book in print by July. And it was absolutely possible. Except for one thing. . .

While he worked on the technical aspects of layout and formatting, I got to work on a task that I thought would be simple: lyric licensing.

My story, as you may recall, is about my journey through grief after losing my son, Cameron, to substance abuse. Very shortly after his death, I began to get messages from him through music. At first it was the songs I’d played at his funeral service that I would hear playing at odd times and in odd places. Usually the songs came either when I’d been thinking about him or when I’d been doing something that was self-nurturing. After a while, I began to suspect that he was communicating with me and I started to ask him things and listen for the next song on the radio. Often, the song that played would bring a clear answer to my question. This musical conversation became a key connection between me and Cameron and made me feel he was always near me.

So, my book is littered with snippets of song lyrics in the context of my healing journey. As I wrote the book, it never really dawned on me that I would need to obtain permission for each and every lyric I had quoted. When Paul explained that I would need to contact the publishers of each song, I still figured it was a simple formality that would not be difficult.


Out of a dozen requests that I sent out on April 8, I have received one flat no and two easy yeses. The rest are all still in limbo. For one song the artist’s lawyer wanted me to agree that all promotional material for the book would require the artist’s 30-day advance approval. That would be a major bottleneck, so I’ve decided to remove that song’s lyrics from the book. The publisher for another artist, from whom I’d quoted three songs, requested a fee of $150 per song for the first 500 books sold, with a renegotiation required after that. Three requests are just now being reviewed, two months after my request was sent. The final two requests have not yet received a reply of any kind.

I have always been a proponent of protecting intellectual property. I believe in playing by the rules. Whether it is music, movies or software, I am opposed to pirating on principle. However, it seems to me that a simple crediting of the source should suffice when a song lyric is an integral part of a non-fiction story. After all, one can quote a small passage from a book without asking permission as long as the quote is referenced accurately, giving credit to the original author and publisher. But for lyrics, it’s a whole different ballgame.

I tried searching the Internet to find what the industry standard is for lyric fees, to no avail. My experience so far is that there is no standard. I have had everything from no fee to a free copy of the book to $150 quoted for the right to reprint lyrics. And the time it takes to get a response has been, with a few notable exceptions, ridiculously long. So long, in fact, that the publication date for the book has been pushed out to September. I am seriously considering rewriting all the sections of the book that contain lyrics, but the problem is that the lyrics carry the message and without quoting them it would be hard to convey the feeling and meaning as clearly.

When I write my next book, though, you can bet that I won’t quote a single lyric. It’s not worth the headaches and delays. You would think that the artists would appreciate the exposure, however small or large it might be, of being publicly acknowledged in print as having been a great source of healing during a time of deep despair. Maybe someone who had not heard their song before would want to hear it and buy the album. It’s not like I’m trying to pass their words off as my own. I have included them because I want to honor them for the role they played in my healing process.

The problem is, I think, that it’s not up to the artist at all. It’s up to the publishing company and their lawyers. I doubt that the artist ever sees any of the fees collected for reprint licensing. My experience so far is that it is the bigger publishing houses that want the large fees and take the longest to process the request. In the few instances where I was able to deal directly with a representative for the artist, the process was quite simple with few strings attached.

I almost wish I’d just gone ahead without asking permission and then claimed ignorance later, when and if anyone caught me out. But I’m too much of a rule follower for that. My husband tells me I’m being punished for doing the right thing. I’m beginning to think he’s right.

As always, I welcome your comments, here on the blog or via email. Please visit my website, often and watch for news on the release of the book.

Wishing you peace on the journey…

1 comment:

  1. Glad you're back, Claire. The pictures are amazing! I'm glad you had a good trip.

    I can't believe that quoting lyrics is not covered under "fair use." I guess if you were doing an academic paper, rather than a book for sale, it might be different. But BMI and ASCAP are known bullies, and you're right--the artists don't always see the money. I read a book by Jimmy Webb ("Wichita Lineman," among others) who had to get on the phone to his lawyer when he heard his song on a TV ad, but had not received any checks; the licensing company had been collecting the money, though; they owed him $300K that he wouldn't have gotten if he hadn't made a stink.

    Locally, they've been bullying the open mic venues, saying that they'll sue the owners if they allow people to sing covers that they haven't paid royalties on, regardless of whether the musician gets paid, and they've been successful--there are some who only allow originals. Then again, that won't save you, either--I read a story (could be urban legend, but I have my doubts) about a guy who only played originals, and ASCAP still insisted he owed them money, though he hadn't joined and obviously owned the copyright. It's quite the racket, and it doesn't do much for the little-known musician. I'm sorry you've felt like you had no choice but to revise your book to deal with such issues.