Lessons From the Rocky Launch of Amtrak’s Writing Residency Program

    by Miral Sattar
    March 25, 2014
    Photo by Sneebly on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license..

    Like most writers, I got super excited when I heard about Amtrak’s program for authors.

    The much-lauded Amtrak Residency program came to fruition when writer Alexander Chee mentioned in an interview that he liked to write on a train and commented, “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.”

    "In my initial excitement I had forgotten the advice I always give to authors: Make sure you know what you're submitting to or sign up for. "

    Soon, the quote sparked a discussion on Twitter. Amtrak got wind of it and introduced an official program on March 8.


    A program for writers to write in peace and get free train rides? How awesome! Writers around the country praised Amtrak for their support of writers. (I myself was one of them.)

    I urged all writers to apply. I had planned to submit an application myself until someone on Facebook asked whether I had heard about the “rights controversy” with the Amtrak Residency program.



    Upon a closer look at the application submission form it looks like their Terms of Use aren’t so friendly to authors.

    The Terms of Use from Section 6 are cut and pasted below:

    6. Grant of Rights: In submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties. In addition, Applicant hereby represents that he/she has obtained the necessary rights from any persons identified in the Application (if any persons are minors, then the written consent of and grant from the minor’s parent or legal guardian); and, Applicant grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy the name, image, and/or likeness of Applicant and the names of any such persons identified in the Application for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing. For the avoidance of doubt, one’s Application will NOT be kept confidential (and, for this reason, it is recommended that the writing sample and answers to questions not contain any personally identifiable information – e.g., name or e-mail address – of Applicant.) Upon Sponsor’s request and without compensation, Applicant agrees to sign any additional documentation that Sponsor may require so as to effect, perfect or record the preceding grant of rights and/or to furnish Sponsor with written proof that he/she has secured any and all necessary third party consents relative to the Application.

    Amtrak image.

    Amtrak image.

    It sounds like anything you submit to Amtrak in the application (sample essay, chapter of a book, etc.) they would have the rights to sell, publish, use anywhere and also modify it for their use.

    I reached out to publishing industry watchdog Victoria Strauss to get her thoughts. Strauss summarized the simple changes Amtrak could make to their residency program to make it a little better for authors.

    In an email, Strauss expressed that “there are some real concerns about the grant of rights, which could easily be addressed with just a few tweaks — but given the apparently massive number of applicants, Amtrak has little incentive to make them.”



    Also, a closer look at the prize the “Round-trip train travel will be provided on an Amtrak long-distance route. Each resident will be given a private sleeper car, equipped with a desk, a bed and a window to watch the American countryside roll by for inspiration. Routes will be determined based on availability” which doesn’t necessarily mean all expenses paid. Sounds like you ride to a destination and ride back, and the train ride is free.

    Getting Around the Rights Issue

    Some contract-savvy writers like Jeffrey A. Carver are aware of the rights issue and leverage the program for all it’s worth by submitting excerpts of their already published novels. If their work gets chosen, they see it as a way to promote and market already-published works.

    In a BiblioCrunch blog comment he wrote, “I think if you’re careful about what you submit (i.e., material you don’t mind if they publish world-wide and forever), there’s no reason not to apply. I included a fair-use length excerpt of a published novel of mine, and if they want to use the excerpt to publicize my novel for me, I’m good with that. I’m also fine with their using my short paragraphs composed to say why I’d like to be selected. You just have to take care about what you choose to upload.”

    Still, I don’t know how I feel about that. Amtrak could easily amend their terms and show that they truly support authors. They could also prove that it’s not just a social media play to get folks talking about something other than their notoriously slow or delayed trains on social media.

    I, for one, won’t be applying after all. I’d rather just pay for my own ticket (worth about a few hundred dollars) and just keep the rights to my work. A fellow author suggested that I create a version of the program and let authors keep their rights.

    So, I did. It’s here: #BiblioCrunchResidency.

    In my initial excitement I had forgotten the advice I always give to authors: Make sure you know what you’re submitting to or sign up for. Before submitting your work anywhere or uploading your book anywhere make sure they are author-friendly. Unless you accidentally don’t want to give away the rights to your book, always read the Terms of Use — always.

    Miral Sattar is the CEO of BiblioCrunch, an award-winning author services marketplace that matches authors with quality, award-winning professionals to get new books to market. She has worked in the media industry for 11 years, most recently at TIME where she launched several digital initiatives. Her writing has been featured in PBS, TIME, CNN, NY Daily News, among other media publications. She has a MS in Publishing (Digital + Print Media) from NYU and a BS from Columbia University in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. You can follow Miral on Twitter @miralsattar.

    Tagged: alexander chee amtrak controversy residency train writers

    3 responses to “Lessons From the Rocky Launch of Amtrak’s Writing Residency Program”

    1. DustyW says:

      Here’s an idea: Don’t like their terms? Don’t apply.

    2. And how in the world do we get our works off their records? Surely we have the right to say, “No, I changed my mind. I don’t want you to sell and make profit off my work I submitted.” Those who are okay with it and don’t care they can keep, but as for those like me, we should have the right at least to request them to delete our writing we submitted them.

    3. Bob Hale says:

      And if you don’t like their terms, and still submit, well such is the life of freelance writing. The time to NOT get published is when you delete the article…or tuck it away. I’d think that we’d answer all our question before submitting; or better yet – and a tad more honest about getting a free train ride – answer all our questions before contacting Amtrak for the free ride. I’d
      never submit to a hunting magazine if I’d never hunted and had no intention of hunting. I’d not “go along for the ride” unless I had made the business decisions BEFORE boarding the train! Like any professional writer we should understand the terms and make business decisions before packing the extra pair of socks!

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