Fair trade knitting designers, part III in a sad series

by Shannon on February 9, 2009

(Y’know, I’m going to run out of clever post titles and Roman numerals if this keeps up…)

The backstory:

1. A year ago, Annie Modesitt wrote about the original digital sales contract Interweave sent out here and here.
2. In a post aptly-titled Here we go again, she publicized the details of the new Soho (read: Vogue, knit.1, Knit Simple, etc) digital pattern contract.
3. And now, she’s written a post called Valuing our work.

Read that last link if you want a bit of a recap as well as editorial, or are pressed for time.

As for my posts about it all: Free range, eco-friendly, fair trade knitting teachers and Fair trade knitting teachers, part 2, both of which concentrate more on the compensation offered to teachers in the industry, but that stand on their own in terms of general principles.

My column in knit.1 was recently canceled. Ad sales are down everywhere for print magazines, and front-of-magazine features are taking the hit so they don’t have to decrease the number of patterns in each issue. I understand that.

What I don’t understand is how Soho can justify selling patterns for $6 and $7 (see here) without compensating the designers more than 10% — let’s not even get into the free patterns on offer, for which the designers will surely see nothing.

(At least they’re not selling them for 99 cents a la iTunes, I suppose. I am an eternal optimist).

The Soho staff are incredibly bright and devoted to their work — I count many personal friends among them. But how can they as an entity not realize that a proposition such as this is going to harm them more in the long run than their current ad sales/money-raising dilemmas? I can say with some degree of conviction that they can’t possibly have missed what happened with Interweave (and how they ended up making designer-friendly changes to their online sales program after several people spoke up). My sincere hope is that Soho, too, will amend their contract in the same way Interweave did.

Ysolda Teague makes some good points in her post Standing together, specifically:

Things are changing in the knit publishing world. There are magazines that do care about their designers. Last year Interweave showed a wonderful willingness to listen to designers when they changed the royalty paid to designers from individual online pattern sales from 10% to a sliding scale. Yarn Forward’s contracts revert the rights to the designer after an exclusivity period and I belief they’re planning on launching an online pattern store and paying fair royalties for that.

(She’s right about Yarn Forward, by the way…this editor can tell you some very exciting things are on the horizon there).

But more importantly, Ysolda wrote:

I’d love to see one of my designs in Vogue Knitting, but I’d already decided it wasn’t going to happen unless they were willing to negotiate the terms of their contracts. Consequently, like Annie, I have nothing to lose. If writing this means that eventually they do change but don’t want to work with me, well that’s fine, I’ll still consider it a gain if it means that other designers are fairly paid for their work. But speaking up about this does feel scary, and it may seem to many designers that there is something to lose in doing so. The only way things are going to change for everyone is if we stand together.

I won’t lie to you. I’m a little scared, writing this. As I said above, I have friends on both sides of the equation. And as a writer, I hope to contribute to other knitting magazines for a long, long time (patterns are something else, I barely have time to do my own on top of Yarn Forward work right now!) If I get blacklisted, I’ll be sad, but like Ysolda, weighing the pros and cons of speaking up versus not, I have to go with my own conscience here. It would be wrong not to write about this when I have the bully pulpit of several thousand readers to whom I can communicate…

As I’ve mentioned in the past, there are so many other avenues by which one can purchase patterns now — designers’ websites, Etsy, Ravelry, Stitch Cooperative in your LYS, Twist Collective, Patternfish… it might take a new designers a little longer to get noticed, but it will happen if your patterns are good and you maintain a certain level of professionalism, i.e. getting your patterns tech edited by a skilled tech editor, making sure your photography is really top-notch, etc. If you are serious about selling your patterns and you are talented, you will succeed.

Ravelry just hit $250,000 in pattern sales recently. If you’re a member, check out the pricing tier for when they do start charging for pattern sales.

Pricing (effective date to be announced)
These tiers are based on monthly sales and billed at the end of the month. You don’t have to choose a tier. If you don’t sell anything, you don’t owe us anything. Hosting space is unlimited.

  • $0 to $20 in monthly sales: free
  • $20 to $100 in monthly sales: 5% of total sales
  • $100 to $250 in monthly sales: $5
  • $250 to $1000 : $10
  • $1000 – $3000 : $20

Even the service I use costs more than that, when you do the math! (That said, maybe I’ll switch ALL my personal pattern sales over to Ravelry…hmmm).

Do you ever really look at the ads in the magazines? Have you noticed, if you’re a Ravelry user, that many of the companies (South West Trading Company comes to mind) have switched to advertising there instead? Wonder why? There are currently — as of this moment — 285,550 registered users there. Newsflash: NO knitting magazine has 285,550 subscribers. Heck, I think if you combined the circulation of every US-based knitting mag you wouldn’t have that many unique subscribers.

(I should note, though, for the record, that Yarn Forward is doing quite well with its ads specifically because a. there are only 10 pages of them per issue so advertisers get a lot more attention for the money and b. we treat them really well, to boot, as seen by our repeat ads)

Ravelry, and I say this with the utmost love, is the 800-pound gorilla now, kids. And I am glad for it. They are equally fair to designers, advertisers and users alike. They are responsive. They are wonderful human beings as friends and business colleagues, and they care about the community.

If you’re wondering what you can do if you’re not a designer…well, I’ll leave that to you. Blog about this, post it on your Facebook/MySpace/Twitter/etc, make a point to support independent designers… but do talk about it. As we all learned from watching after school specials in the 1980s (well, I did, anyway): you have to speak up when you are being abused. This might not be a t-ball coach/bathing-suit-area situation, but it has me feeling equally icky at the moment.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

ysolda February 9, 2009 at 2:12 pm

It’s so great to see you writing about this too!

eliza February 9, 2009 at 2:16 pm

Okay, so I realize this is a very serious subject, an I totally agree with everything you’re saying here, too. But I have to tell you, after reading that last line, all I’m envisioning is a designer standing there screaming “BAD TOUCH! BAD TOUCH! I NEED AN ADULT!!” at VK.

And it’s making me cry with glee.

Cathy February 9, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Thanks for writing about this, and providing all the links.

As for your post titles, you can mention that you’re grass-fed, hormone-free, and antibiotic-free :)

Tara February 9, 2009 at 2:22 pm

I’m so glad you wrote about this!
It’s a great reminder of the things us non-designing-knitters can do to promote fairness: buy patterns on Ravelry, from the designers or one of the other awesome magazines!

melissaknits February 9, 2009 at 2:23 pm

(snark attack) Shall we talk about book royalties next? (end snark)

Shannon February 9, 2009 at 2:38 pm

Melissa my love, there is one keyword there and it is AMAZON. At the risk of being hypocritical — hey, I buy books there, too! — you can chalk up the low-to-no royalties stuff squarely on their shoulders thanks to the amazing line item we call the “52% discount or higher” clause in pretty much all book contracts. Sigh. I look at all the books I’ve sold, and the one company that consistently sends me royalty checks is Interweave, but that’s because I got paid less up front, ‘earned out’ faster and they have a better direct market in terms of straight-to-LYS sales.

Romi February 9, 2009 at 3:18 pm

It think it’s fabulous that you’ve written! The internet is really proving to be a great tool for leveling the field. You no longer have to be published in a magazine to succeed as a designer. That will change everything in the long run.

Dana February 9, 2009 at 3:19 pm

As I commented to Ysolda, I am not a Vogue or IK subscriber and I don’t intend to be. I get all my patterns online and am willing to pay for them. Magazines seem to be an outdated delivery system to me. It’s frustrating that I want to knit something I see on Ravelry and then discover it’s from a 2005 IK. Where in the world will I find that? I want to be able to get it straight from the designer, or from Twist, or any online source, for that matter.

So stay strong. I have a feeling the magazines’ days are numbered.

Shannon February 9, 2009 at 5:02 pm

Dana, I wouldn’t say that the magazine’s day has come *quite* yet, not the least of which reasons is that I edit one! (Yarn Forward). I think there is room for multiple information formats, but the same level of fairness needs to be there across the board.

For example, at Yarn Forward, we license the pattern from the designer for 6 months. Six months after that issue hits newsstands, the designer can sell it on their own website, on Ravelry, whatever. We liked it, we published it, we paid to use it, but now they can do whatever they want with that pattern.

If by some chance we decided to put together a ‘best of…’ book, it’s in the contract — the designer will be paid a minimum of 50% of the original fee for that re-use.

This is good for everyone — yarn companies get their yarns into designers’ hands, designers get paid for their talent and are exposed to readers who might not have found them only online, and then 6 months later they can continue to earn money on the design because it is THEIR intellectual property.

It’s fair, and the best of both worlds for everyone. Knitters get to ‘meet’ designers they might not have found (as editor, I’m serving as a curator of what’s in style and what I think the knitters reading our magazine will like), designers gain new fans, and the patterns support the other features and content (book reviews, etc) that are interesting.

Contrast that to “we published your pattern, now WE can earn money off it forever and ever.” Which, if you ask me, isn’t very fair. It IS fair to ask for a percentage of the proceeds to cover hosting costs, credit card fees and all the back end admin stuff, but 90%? I know exactly what kind of costs go into these sorts of things, and 90% just isn’t necessary.

Vickie Howell February 9, 2009 at 5:06 pm

Well said, Shannon. I’ve been so focused on hustling ways that I CAN still make money as a designer that I’ve neglected to even take notice about the ways I SHOULD be able to.

I’m sorry to hear your column in Knit.1 got cut. I’m guessing mine will follow suit soon. :(

xo, Vic

KnitPurlGurl February 9, 2009 at 5:25 pm

Thanks for posting this. And thanks to Vickie Howell for posting a link to it on Facebook. As a fairly newbie knitter, I was not aware of these practices. I have been buying all of my patterns online on Ravelry simply because of the ease. I immediately download and organize into electronic files. Now that I know this, I will continue to use Ravelry as my choice for purchasing patterns. Just like I believe it is important to support your LYS, I believe it is important to support designers. Good luck to all of you designers out there! You’re very talented people who deserve what’s only right and fair. :D

Amie February 9, 2009 at 5:39 pm

I’m following the posts designers (and non-designers) are making on this very topic and each has added a lot to the conversation at large. VK needs to pay designers a fair wage and designers, knitters, and crocheters need to stick together and say, “Enough is enough.”

Re-posting this to FB now.

jonquil February 9, 2009 at 5:54 pm

just another reason not to buy knit1. can’t find yarn forward around here (southern ct.).

Shannita February 9, 2009 at 6:43 pm

As a shop owner, recently I’ve heard my customers say over and over again that the pool of designers must be getting smaller because they really don’t like what they’re seeing in the magazines. Instead, they’ve opted to find patterns on Ravelry, Etsy, Twist Collective, and other online sources. They’re purchasing fewer and fewer magazines, too, which makes shop owners reconsider stocking magazines at all and/or cutting back on the number of magazines they offer. The result, sales and ad revenue are down, there are fewer features and columns to read, and the mags lose readers.

The solution begins with paying designers what they deserve for their hard work. Readers are noticing that the knit mags they’ve come to love aren’t offering the same level of design that has been offered in the past – could it be because designers don’t want to be taken advantage of? That they’re looking for other avenues to sell their designs where they’ll be treated fairly? And who could blame them?

As for cutting columns, that just seems a little ridiculous in light of the fact that the columns are where the buzz about and excitement for the craft are generated. That buzz trickles down to to the LYS. You print it, people talk, then they come to the LYS looking for the new hotness or armed with the latest info they walk through the doors ready to chat, browse and buy. Thanks for posting this. Lots of food for thought.

PICAdrienne February 9, 2009 at 7:53 pm

As much as many people get patterns from Ravelry, or Twist Collective, or Knitty or Knotions, there are some knitters who are not on the internet, and they still look to print magazines for patterns. As the market place contracts (and that is the next step if advertisers leave) they will be the people most hurt by the changes.

The magazines last effected will be the magazines that do not spite their designers. It will turn around, if the designers are not treated fairly.

kathy February 9, 2009 at 7:58 pm

Shannon – nice post. Without all of the talented designers out there, our job as shop owners would be quite challenging. There are so many parts and pieces to our industry – take one out and we’ve got a problem. I hope Soho steps up and does the right thing.

Shannon February 9, 2009 at 8:11 pm

PICAdrienne, you’re right — this is why I think there is definitely a place in the marketplace for the print magazines! Not everyone’s online, not everyone wants to be, and this is how Stitch Cooperative (the pattern distribution service I started with some other independent designers last year to place our patterns directly into local yarn stores) came about. It will meet the needs of another constituency who might not come to buy from us directly, but who rely on their LYS to serve as ‘editor’ in terms of bringing in patterns they think their customers will like. At the same time, however, our contact info is on those patterns. If a customer buys one and has problems, s/he can email us directly for help, which isn’t always so easy with a magazine!

minnie February 9, 2009 at 9:51 pm

I have to agree with several points made in the comments, to include the whole magazine thing. I myself have let subscriptions lapse because I wasn’t happy with the quality of patterns I had been seeing, and felt my money was better spent picking and choosing issues to buy, rather than being forced to take each one as it came, regardless of how I felt about the contents.

I have to admit, however, that when I do consider buying a magazine, I do look for patterns before columns, unless it’s something really cool (the example that comes to mind is the baby surprise surplice jacket that meg swanson did as a riff on EZ’s baby surprise jacket in VK). I’m more likely to sit down with a magazine in the bookstore and read the articles, then page through the patterns, and those will determine whether or not I buy it.

That being said, I think you ladies who have stood up for designers are fantasmagorical (I’m allowed to use words like that, lol, I’m a writer AND an editor). You are paving the way for those of us who aspire to be designers, and want to be able to make money at it, if not an out and out living (I’d be happy for yarn money, lol!).

We are not worthy, we are not worthy!

jacey February 9, 2009 at 10:42 pm

Shannon, great post. Saying things that need to be said is never easy but it’s always right, I think. Anyway, thanks for the info and the links, very informative.

Gudrun February 12, 2009 at 7:57 pm

I’m really grateful to you, Annie and Ysolda (and others) for getting people talking about this. The information us newer designers are getting out of it is incredibly helpful. This gives me a lot more confidence when considering my publishing options. Thank you!

Ann Kingstone February 13, 2009 at 6:59 am

Echoing Gudrun above – this is so helpful for ‘us newer designers’. I was despairing of ever getting fair reward as a knitting designer. Last year I was approached by the publisher of a ‘Pattern a Day’ calendar wanting me to submit a pattern for no pay at all, just the publicity of the thing. No way!!

I hereby pledge to my fellow designers not to sell myself out.

Barclay February 19, 2009 at 12:08 pm

I am totally sympathetic to the designers’ point of view on this issue and hope that Vogue/Soho change their position and adopt a much fairer pay scale. I look at Vogue Knitting in the bookstore, but almost never buy it because the patterns are completely irrelevant to my daily life – almost ridiculously avant garde. This isn’t surprising, of course; it’s a Vogue publication. I do subscribe to IK, because the patterns are much closer to my lifestyle, and I like the articles a lot as well.

The one point I want to comment on is Shannon’s question in the original post, “Do you ever really look at the ads in the magazines?” to which I reply, Absolutely! They are an important source of information, both about new yarns and about patterns designed for the yarn manufacturers; I also really love the smaller ads in the back of the magazine, and quite often contact the vendors directly to buy yarn/fiber online. I buy a lot of fiber, yarn, and patterns online, but for me the experience of leafing through a magazine in print, looking at the ads as part of the entertainment and information, is something I really love and would miss if the print experience disappeared. It’s just not the same online. And I work on the intarwebs, but I still feel strongly attached to print.

Amy M February 20, 2009 at 9:57 am

Can we go back to the amazon/book discussion for a moment? I’m really interested in supporting designers to the best of my ability but I’m also a big amazon user. I mostly use it because of the wish list and the free shipping and (for new releases) the ability to get the book much sooner than when my LYS stocks it…but if buying my knitting and crochet books from amazon means little to no financial gain for the designers then I’m prepared to change my practices.

And what about the big box bookstores (Borders, B&N)? Is there a significant benefit to designers if I buy my books at my LYS over any other bookstore?

I do try to buy books directly from designers when I take their classes, too. But sometimes the cost of the class and materials makes the timing of buying the books more difficult. Although I would rather pay a few extra dollars for a book to ensure the designer is making a fair wage than bargain shop and leave them with nothing.

Thanks for the education, Shannon!

Becky in VT February 20, 2009 at 11:01 am

I also want to echo Gudrun. I’m so glad that “knitting-famous” designers (my husband’s term) are discussing these issues publicly. As a brand new designer I’m really glad to be able to learn from other people’s experiences. I like knowing I have options and don’t have to feel like I’m selling myself short!

Shannon February 23, 2009 at 11:19 am

Amy, it doesn’t matter if you buy at your LYS or Borders/B&N — the difference in royalties comes when Amazon (or KnitPicks, to give another example) buys the books at greater than 52% off cover, wholesalewise (which is how they can offer you 40% off!).

Many — most? — publishers have a clause in their contracts that was probably originally designed to keep from paying full royalties on copies when they’re not selling well and get dumped on some kind of outlet store or whatever, but which has ended up affecting the large quantities of sales made through Amazon in particular. (I’m guilty, I buy there, too!)

If a retailer purchases the book for more than 52% off, I get half the royalty I would have gotten.

Simple math with lots of rounding: Knitgrrl the book costs $10. 10% royalty means theoretically I should get $1 for every copy sold. In practice, by the time you average in these 52% or higher sales through Amazon, Canadian/foreign sales, etc. it is more like 40 cents (I sat down and played with the math once). But, before you can even get that 40 cents per book, you need to sell enough copies to “earn out” the advance you got from the publisher up front. Which means, in practice, unless you sell many, many, many thousands of copies, you are probably never going to see any royalties at all, since sales of a book tend to drop off after the first year or so.

Playing with math and typical cover prices, you’d probably need to sell well over 20,000 copies of a book in order to see decent royalties…but those are only paid 2x per year from the publishers… long story short, can you see why so many of us have moved more towards self-publishing models? :) Can you imagine sitting here wondering if the check that comes 2x per year is going to be enough to pay your mortgage for the next 6 months?

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