From The Bookseller:
A famous author, presenting his forthcoming book to his excited new publishers at a sales conference, once said: “You look after the sales, I will look after posterity.”
While the rediscovery of the works of Herman Melville, Richard Yates and J G Farrell many years after their deaths may have boosted their publishers’ sales, and the respective authors’ posthumous reputations, it did not help the authors’ own prosperity in their lifetime. That is where the author’s representative comes in. It is incumbent on the agent to be ever more vigilant about all aspects of their client’s career—especially the sales! In a sometimes parlous industry, where one does not know what the retailing landscape will look like from one month to the next and where the rise of e-books is ever more apparent (our e-book market is currently the largest in Europe), this vigilance must apply as much to the contractual terms as to the actual matter and manner of publication.
Thus the provision “if the book is available through all normal sales channels”—which used to be a means of policing the “in print” clause—is, to my mind, now too loose and ill-defined. The arrival of the e-book, with its lack of physical accountability, alongside technological advances in printing, such as print on demand (p.o.d.), mean it is becoming more and more difficult to define a book as not in print.
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I would contend that we should revisit the basic terms of the contract and consider the possibility of granting a licence, rather than a full term-of-copyright contract. This is the case in many European countries and beyond. Publishers in France, Brazil, Germany, Holland and Italy customarily publish books under a licence of seven to 10 years, so the limited licence is evidently a perfectly workable business model. In any case, the concept of a limited licence is not new to English-language publishing. In the 1980s the “minimum terms agreement” came into force with some publishers who drew up all their contracts on a 20-year licence. This arrangement seems to have mainly lapsed, and I do not see why it should not be re-introduced.
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It seems that only by re-introducing a limited licence will an author ensure that his book’s life is finite with a particular publisher. A limited licence may even encourage the licence owner to be more vigorous and ambitious in exploiting publishing possibilities.
Link to the rest at The Bookseller and thanks to David for the tip.