April 10, 2008
Avalanche Publishing, Inc.
P.O. Box 55
Delafield , WI 53018
Attention: Publishing Team for the Fractal Universe Calendar
Dear Publishing Team:
I am writing you out of concern for the protocols used to solicit materials for your annual Fractal Universe Calendar.
I co-edit Orbit Trap, a blog devoted to fractals and fractal art. My partner, Tim Hodkinson, and I have become increasing concerned about the manner in which several major fractal art competitions are run, including the Fractal Universe Calendar. There appear to some serious questions of propriety in these competitions over issues of professional standards and conflicts of interest.
We have not only published our inquiries on our blog, but I have also taken the time to personally contact this year’s editor, Panny Brawley, to see if she might speak to our questions. The FAQ page of the Fractal Forum site clearly states that any questions not covered in the FAQ will try to be addressed and added to the FAQ page — or, if not, the publisher will be contacted. Here is the relevant passage:
We hope you will find that your questions have already been anticipated and answered. If not, please contact us. We will try to answer you personally, and add your question with it’s answer to this page — here. Where necessary, we will contact the publisher on your behalf for clarification.
I have now waited several weeks for a reply from Ms. Brawley, but I have heard nothing. I also have to assume that no one at Avalanche was contacted by her either, or I (or Orbit Trap) probably would have received some correspondence. Consequently, because of this lack of response, I have decided to write you directly in order to pose our questions.
One of our main concerns is why Avalanche Publishing solicits selections for the Fractal Universe Calendar using a competitive scenario. Although the web site claims “this is *not* a contest,” it certainly has the trappings of one. Your editor is actually more of a screener who whittles down the bulk of open submissions to a more manageable number. These finalists who have survived the initial cut are then sent to “the publishing team” who function as judges to make the final selection of thirteen images. This competitive framework is our major concern.
Such a competitive configuration seems to run counter to your usual selection methods. Under the heading of “Does Avalanche accept art submissions,” your own FAQ page on the Avalanche web site notes the following:
Due to the increasing amount of unsolicited materials we have been receiving each year, we no longer accept unsolicited submissions of transparencies and artwork. Avalanche editors will contact specific artists and photographers for submissions.
But all submissions for the Fractal Universe Calendar are unsolicited — at least by your definition. None of the open submissions for the contest result from direct contact with individual artists. Or, on the contrary, are specific artists sometimes approached? Later, in the contest FAQ, the following appears:
“Q: Will artwork, other than that submitted to you via this website, be considered for inclusion for the calendar?
A: Yes — possibly. In the past, Avalanche Publishing has requested specific fractals or fractal types. Special requests of individual artists may be made by approaching them directly.”
So content for the calendar is and is not solicited? If that is the case, why not just scrap the competition and have editors contact specific artists in the first place? Why not hire an editor who is a fractal artist, like Ms. Brawley, pay her a stipend, have her keep an eye on various fractal sites and art communities for a year, and then allow her to contact specific artists to submit works that fit with the calendar’s aesthetics? This would seem to be more in line with your usual practices. Moreover, by removing the competitive structure from the submission process, the questions about professionalism and conflicts of interest will vanish. As long as the Fractal Universe Calendar selection process is competitive, and the current practices are in place, questions of propriety will continue to arise. Here are a few that Orbit Trap has raised:
How are the Fractal Universe Calendar editors compensated for their services? We have heard mixed reports. One former editor noted that payment was strictly the inclusion of one image in the calendar. Another suggested that some monetary payment was also included — either for doing the editing or for having an image published. We have also heard that editors are free to include their own work into what is selected for the initial cut. Is this true? Is there a limit on the number of his or her own work an editor can include to the 200 images sent to the publishing team? What is that limit?
We feel that including an editor’s work — under any circumstances — into material that she or he is editing should raise questions about professionalism. But doing so in a competitive format is even more egregious and increases the likelihood that conflicts of interest might occur. This is not fanciful thinking either. By our calculations, just over 40% of the images published in the Fractal Universe Calendar from 2004 to 2008 were the work of just four people — all of whom were present or past editors.
Do you consider this ratio to be fair? Is this the reason the editors for previous years are not listed on the Fractal Universe Calendar web site?
–What protocols are in place to help prevent potential conflicts of interest — like editors or even “the publishing team” recognizing the submitted work of friends or family? Blind judging is apparently not strictly used, since the Fractal Universe Calendar FAQ notes that signatures are allowed on submissions.
— The same FAQ also states that the list of the final 200 images will not be made public. What is the reasoning for keeping this information private? There is no privacy issue involved, since artists willingly submitted their work for public show. Moreover, if given attribution, artists who made the cut might have added incentive to submit again the following year. Why not say who made the cut — and even list the number of images by a given artist that were passed on to the publisher?
–Who exactly are the we mentioned throughout the text of the Fractal Universe Calendar web site — especially since only one editor is listed? Is the reference to “the publishing team”? The only other person mentioned is someone who maintains the website. Is this person part of the us? And how is the site’s web designer compensated for her services?
I hope you do not misunderstand us. We are not questioning your right to publish a calendar and to use whatever material you wish. We are just questioning why you are using a competitive framework. By doing so, and by using the current practices, you run an increased risk of raising questions about impropriety — particularly in regard to standards of professionalism and to possible ethical shortcomings. If, instead, you managed the Fractal Universe Calendar selection process as a more conventional publishing venture — hiring and paying an editor to solicit work directly from artists — I would not be writing you in the first place.
I hope you will be able to answer our questions. I thank you for your time and effort, and I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest possible convenience.
Cruel Animal Productions
P.O. Box 25901
Little Rock , AR 72221-5901
We have written about the Fractal Universe Calendar on Orbit Trap on and off for several years now. Here are links to several recent posts:
This letter has also been posted on our blog.
I mailed this letter today to Avalanche Publishing — and I also sent the letter via the email contact on their web site. If I receive any reply from the publisher, I will publish it here on Orbit Trap. I certainly hope the publishers will be more responsive than this year’s Fractal Universe Calendar editor has been so far.