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A Publishing Contract Should Not Be Forever

28 July 2015

From The Authors Guild:

From The Authors Guild:

Diamonds may be forever, but book contracts should not be. There’s no good reason why a book should be held hostage by a publisher for the lifetime of the copyright, the life of the author plus seventy years—essentially forever. Yet that’s precisely what happens today. A publisher may go bankrupt or be bought by a conglomerate, the editors who championed the author may go on to other companies, the sales force may fail to establish the title in the marketplace and ignore it thereafter, but no matter how badly the publisher mishandles the book, the author’s agreement with the original publisher is likely to remain in effect for many decades.

That’s the way most book contracts have been drafted for more than a century, and publishers take it for granted; only a few brave souls have asked why or argued with it because that’s the way it has always been. In the ideal traditional publishing partnership—where the publisher nourished the author’s career; where the same editor worked closely with the author over decades, editing and reworking books and new book ideas; where the publisher actively marketed and promoted the author and gave the author a sufficient advance to live on between books—then it might have made sense for the publisher to own the rights for the entire copyright term. But that is the rare author-publisher relationship today.

. . . .

Authors victimized by this status quo know that it’s long past time for publishers to offer a fair deal. We believe three basic changes are urgently needed: (1) time-limited contracts, (2) a clause that provides for reversion of unexploited rights, and (3) a specific new unchallengeable definition to replace historic “out of print” clauses that are not remotely relevant in the electronic age.

When it comes to time limits in agreements, publishers historically have positioned themselves on the lucrative side of the line. With authors, the deal they offer basically lasts forever. But when they’re on the other side of the deal, licensing things like paperback reprints or foreign rights to other companies, publishers typically don’t make agreements that continue for the life of a book’s copyright. Instead, the contracts are good only for fixed periods—seven years, for example. If publishers can routinely demand licenses that expire, why shouldn’t authors?

We think the “standard” contract should last for a limited period of time from the date of publication; it should end well before the 35-year termination window opens. When the contract expires, if a book is still doing well, the author and publisher might negotiate another time-limited deal—or the author might choose to move the book to a house that has put more effort into marketing the author’s later works. If the book is no longer gaining support from the original publisher, the author might choose to self-publish it or take it to another publisher. In any case, a time-limited contract gives authors the leverage and flexibility that they need in today’s publishing environment.

. . . .

That brings us to the third step: the “out of print” clause, which has failed woefully to keep up with modern publishing practices and must be replaced. The original concept was straightforward: When a publisher fails to keep a book on the market in a profitable way, the author should get all the rights back. This is more important today than ever, since e-books and print-on-demand make it easy for authors to republish their backlists: a recent study conducted by the British Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) showed that 70% of authors who were able to reclaim their rights were able to earn more money from the work in question.

. . . .

The remedy is simple: Kill the entire outmoded concept of “out of print.” Instead, the contract should define when book rights are being “inadequately exploited” and therefore available for reversion to the author when the book fails to generate a certain amount of income—say, $250–$500—in a one-year period. Using income as the yardstick, not a specific number of sales, is essential: Publishers might otherwise be able to game the clause by offering one-cent e-books the way they’ve gamed existing clauses by using e-books and print-on-demand.

Link to the rest at The Authors Guild and thanks to Melinda for the tip.

PG will note that The Authors Guild proposal for revised out of print provisions is identical to A Minimum Wage for Authors which PG first publicly suggested in 2011.

He believes that the $250-500 per year threshold for reversion is too low, however. This is especially true if the threshold amount is not indexed for inflation (another PG suggestion from 2011). In the US at least, we’ve become accustomed to very low rates of inflation during the past several years. However, PG believes this is not the new normal.

$250 might not buy you a hamburger at McDonalds or a deposit and 10 minutes of fun on any mobile casino apps in a few decades. In 1964, a McDonalds hamburger cost 15 cents.

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Contracts, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

60 Comments to “A Publishing Contract Should Not Be Forever”

  1. “Diamonds may be forever” — or until you have a hot fire …

    Ok, they’ve quietly murmured something in defense of writers against the evils of the publishers, so they are now free to shout aint-Amazon things from the rooftops in 3, 2, 1 …

  2. Any way you slice it, $250 is too low. I was wondering, though, if they mean that level of income for the publisher, which would mean forty bucks for the writer.
    But, yeah, it should be a few thousand – to the writer – or why is the publisher even bothering to hang onto the rights?

  3. I still think the AG is utterly toothless when it comes to implementing changes in the publishing industry, but I gotta hand it to them for getting specific about what’s not working for authors, and for getting the news out to more writers.

    Let’s face it–indie writer/publishers are still pretty much a (loud) voice in the wilderness, but to a lot of newbies and not-so-newbie trad-pub advocates, the Authors Guild is the very voice of God.

  4. Why not have all book contracts be for a limited time with some kind of balloon clause for renewal based on the book’s performance?

    If the book is still doing well and it costs the publisher more to keep it in their stable, I don’t see why that should be a problem. The author will also be motivated by keeping a consistent cover and marketing costs.

  5. “That’s the way most book contracts have been drafted for more than a century, and publishers take it for granted; only a few brave souls have asked why or argued with it…”

    LOL… Hey, I wonder which brave souls they’re referring to?

    Not to be too uncharitable to the AG, and yeah, better late than never, but holy smokes, they’re only now getting around to even just *mentioning* these things? Forget about the fact that talking is as far as the Collective Voice of American Authors has ever had the courage to take things with legacy publishers… they’re only just now figuring out that forever is, you know, maybe a tad long for a licensing agreement to run?

    Or has the public scorn the unnamed “brave souls” have been heaping on the organization forced it to modify its rhetoric, if not its true goals, policies, and allegiances?

    Fascinating.

    • Ah, but they’re not — not taking or talking this up with the publishers that is …

      This is just a little blog on their website, no letters FED/EXed to anyone about anything.

      Like a big wad of cotton candy, there’s not really anything there …

    • Wow, they have a comment section again. When did that happen?

  6. Most good agents have been securing minimum income (for author) thresholds in our clients’ contracts for a very long time.

    • Those agents who bother representing the author’s interest certainly do. Increasingly, though, I’m hearing that the agent won’t do anything to hack off the publisher, because, yanno, the agent’s reputation and everything.

  7. I know of authors who have that money threshold and the publisher does a crappy foreign rights deal that just reaches the threshold, tying the book up again.

    • the Other Diana

      I heard from a Harlequin author that they will print a book in another language just to keep the rights, so rights never revert to the Author.

  8. BTW, I just posted the above comment on the AG blog. Any bets on whether it’s allowed by the Collective Voice of American Authors? 😀

    • I’m waiting to see if it shows up, but I’m not waiting under water…

    • Your comment was approved. Let us see if my comment gets through:

      These are some terrible contract terms, yes.

      Speaking of bad contracts, have you seen the terms offered by Penguin Random House via its Author Solutions subsidiary?

      Those contracts are so bad that authors have filed a class action lawsuit: http://the-digital-reader.com/2015/03/27/new-class-action-suit-filed-against-penguin-random-house-author-solutions/

      Why don’t you make Author Solutions the subject of your next article? That would do all authors a great service.

    • I just posted this:

      Kudos to the Authors Guild for blogging in support of authors, and finally having the courage to allow comments.

      I specifically mentioned this contractual problem three years ago, and chided the AG for not doing anything about it.

      http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2012/05/unconscionability.html

      And now I’ll chide you again. Authors have known that a publishing contract that lasts for a lifetime is bad, and we’ve known it for decades. Simply acknowledging that the cow has left the barn isn’t enough.

      To be worthy of the name “Authors Guild” you have to do more than state the obvious. You have to do something to help and protect authors. Coming to an obvious conclusion, years late, isn’t progressive, and it isn’t helpful. Within the past month you’ve sent letters to Congress and the Assistant Attorney General.

      Let’s see some letters to CEOs of Big 5 houses saying that we’re not gonna take it anymore.

  9. This post and some of the comments are pointlessly churlish. Why not be pleased when AG or anyone with whom you have had disagreements advocates for something you agree with? And don’t forget that the publishers are the ones authors and agents must negotiate with. AG is raising and publicizing a range of very good points about how authors should be better treated in their contracts with traditional publishers. So why all the snark? “You should have said this years ago” accomplishes nothing on behalf of authors…

    • Was it just last week they did something just like this?

      Throwing out a little ‘we want it to be better for all authors’ — just before they did some more bashing of Amazon for things that are actually the fault of the publishers?

      And the ‘for authors’ thing they do nice and quietly where most will never see/hear of it — not so the bashing they do to divert blame from their true masters …

      The pointlessly churlish snark might fade if they actually do something other than changes sides faster than you can flip a coin.

    • Ted,

      Because the barns already on fire and the horses are out?

      Do you know how many indie authors today would be traditionally published if AG took up this cause five years ago? Ten?

      Was AG somehow OK with these clauses until this year, and that’s why they’ve decided to make noise about it?

      You want to talk about “Accomplishing nothing o behalf of authors”, should we be talking about what AG hasn’t been doing to help?

    • Ted, we’re talking about a group with a history of taking the publishers’ side on any issue. They clearly were a puppet for publishers, so if they want to get points for suddenly speaking for authors then they’re going to have to earn it.

      Instead, The Authors Guild backed Authors United a few weeks back in its media circus attack on Amazon. And then TAG asked Congress for SOPA – a wishlist item of big media companies.

      Sorry, but the leopard has not changed its spots.

      • Oh, please. I have had many disagreements with AG, and I resigned my membership years ago because I disagreed with them so strongly on some important topics. But before that I consulted with them several times on contract issues regarding some of my clients, and they were ALWAYS ardent on pushing for pro-author improvements, some of which even *I* had a hard time arguing for with a straight face. Calling AG a puppet for publishers is simply ignorant and self-indulgent. We can have a real conversation – here and elsewhere – about what changes should be made in ‘standard’ publishing contract terms; how best to educate authors, agents, and the public; and how best to pressure publishers to accept such changes. But unfortunately that’s not the conversation happening here…

        • Ted, where is The Authors Guild’s rebuke of Penguin for buying Author Solutions?

          Where is The Authors Guild’s statement on the class action lawsuits filed against ASI?

          Where is The Authors Guild’s criticism of S&S, Lulu, and other companies getting into bed with ASI?

          I googled; those statements did not show up on The Authors Guild website. Got a link?

          Ted, that’s just three examples; I wish i could lay my hands on a certain post by David Gaughran where he lists the many ways that The Authors Guild has not served authors.

          • Sorry Nate – your logic is faulty. “You didn’t come out publicly against every bad thing done by publishers” “You’re a shill for publishers.”

            You just said AG has “a history of taking the publishers’ side on any issue. They clearly were a puppet for publishers” – well sorry, that might feel emotionally satisfying to say, but it’s not true, nor useful, nor productive.

            I will repeat my sincere, genuine invitation to you and every reader of this blog and to every author and author’s advocate anywhere to answer these important questions:

            what changes should be made in ‘standard’ publishing contract terms;
            how best to educate authors, agents, and the public about them;
            how best to pressure publishers to accept such changes.

        • “Oh, please. I have had many disagreements with AG, and I resigned my membership years ago because I disagreed with them so strongly on some important topics.”

          Oh, please yourself.

          Please take what they’ve done in just the last month — all of it. Please note which things they did ‘boldly’ to get public attention of their issues, and which things they more quietly blogged about and did nothing else to attract that same attention.

          “But before that I consulted with them several times on contract issues regarding some of my clients, and they were ALWAYS ardent on pushing for pro-author improvements, some of which even *I* had a hard time arguing for with a straight face.”

          So have they convinced you they’ve changed to the point that you’re thinking about renewing your membership? Do you now agree/like all the things they’ve been doing this past month — never mind the years before? Do you truly see actual change for the better in their spots?

          “Calling AG a puppet for publishers is simply ignorant and self-indulgent.”

          Sorry, to me it looked more like loyal mutt and master, not even puppet and puppeteer …

          “We can have a real conversation – here and elsewhere – about what changes should be made in ‘standard’ publishing contract terms; how best to educate authors, agents, and the public; and how best to pressure publishers to accept such changes.”

          You’d first have to be able to make the publishers listen, and the AG has yet to ‘publicly’ demand the publishers even notice that AG has a problem with how publishers are treating their pens of writers — but AG has ‘publicly’ demanded that something be done about Amazon, so we know they know how to get the public’s attention (when they want it) …

          “But unfortunately that’s not the conversation happening here…”

          Sorry friend, but if you look real hard you’ll see there’s no conversation happening ‘there’ either. Just a little puppy dog grandstanding until their master calls them to heel at his feet once again.

        • Calling AG a puppet for publishers is simply ignorant and self-indulgent.

          No. It’s an observation that AG’s actions over the past year are consistent with supporting publishers interests at the expense of independent authors.

          We can have a real conversation – here and elsewhere – about what changes should be made in ‘standard’ publishing contract terms; how best to educate authors, agents, and the public; and how best to pressure publishers to accept such changes.

          We are already having a real conversation. We can have lots of different conversations, but we are actually having this real conversation.

    • This comment deserves to be on Wikipedia as a perfect example of sincere concern trolling. That is, I have no doubt that he is sincere and no doubt that this is concern trolling. The classic form of concern trolling is to focus on tone instead of substance and to couch the ”advice” as a way to improve the effectiveness of your opponents advocacy even though following the advice would actually undermine it.

      We should always be on guard against mistakenly assuming that an outsider is a concern troll because we could be missing an important signal that we have fallen victim to groupthink. We should analyze the statements in this comment carefully.

      This post and some of the comments are pointlessly churlish. Why not be pleased when AG or anyone with whom you have had disagreements advocates for something you agree with? And don’t forget that the publishers are the ones authors and agents must negotiate with. AG is raising and publicizing a range of very good points about how authors should be better treated in their contracts with traditional publishers. So why all the snark? “You should have said this years ago” accomplishes nothing on behalf of authors.

      Let’s start with ‘pointlessly churlish’. I won’t argue with the churlish part because that is one of many valid impressions. The bit about pointlessness is absolutely wrong. Anyone who has spent time looking at what it takes to goad toothless and ineffective advocacy groups to action on behalf of their putative constituents knows that churlish is a necessary part of that effort. And, in answer to the first question he raises, the reason that this community shouldn’t be pleased by this new-found concern by the AG is that, to be blunt, talk is cheap.

      Furthermore, the vast majority of the authors who comment here don’t have to negotiate with publishers. They have other options and by involving itself in the ludicrous sideshow of writing to the DoJ asking for an antitrust investigation of Amazon, the AG is taking action to cut off the most lucrative of those options. That, in and of itself, is a reason to be unimpressed by this statement.

      To understand why folks here get snarky about this, you have to understand that a mouthing a few platitudes doesn’t compensate for the AG’s long history of playing the servile lapdog of the big publishing companies. ‘Better late than never’ only works for words when they are accompanied by actions.

  10. The only way this will work is if some big name authors are willing to put their own contracts on the line, but the dirty secret is that they have much better contracts than the average authors. Better royalty rates, better perks, better everything. I’ve yet to see a single big name author take a stand for other authors other than signing letters and spouting off.

    If they don’t like Amazon, pull books from it.

    If they don’t like the contracts, don’t sign them.

    Not going to happen.

    • What you just said. The big names could pull a Taylor Swift but they won’t because I really don’t think they care enough. All they care about is their own agenda.

  11. I applaud them for at least talking about this, and the post is strongly worded, too. They’re finally saying, officially, what many, MANY, authors have been saying for years.

    • Perhaps the next time someone is convicted of some capital offense, the judge should issue a strongly worded chiding rather than, you know, sentencing them.

      Talk is cheap. Action is what’s needed.

  12. Fool me once…

    • Actually, Meryl, I think that the AG is speaking with multiple voices. Someone there is writing this piece and the royalty piece, and even though they may not have the levers to make them real, at least they are on record with these pieces. Someone else there is writing the Amazon is Evil pieces. Preston is still on their board – it could well be him.

      I still think that whoever wrote this deserves *some* props for finally starting to mix it up.

      • I agree.

        They ARE getting on board, if a tad late to the gate.

        AND they used PG’s guidelines.

        It’s a huge improvement.

        • At the moment, they’re getting on board to the tune of a couple of blog posts, which means more newbie writers have a chance to absorb the idea that a writer deserves a fair contract. I like that, but I suspect it’s a reaction to the number of members they’ve lost, lower-than-expected numbers of new members, and that last piece of the sky conking them in the noggin, on which is written “Writers have other choices now.”

          And of course at the same time, the organization is standing with publishers and against authors in just about every other way they possibly can.

          Like you, I’d like to see the energy put into blog posts grow to create real action. But what would that do? Publishers will change those contracts when it profits them to do so and not before.

  13. It was five years ago that I commented on Nathan Bransford’s blog that many traditionally pubbed authors weren’t being treated fairly. I was practically crucified by some of the other commenters. Now, here we are, nearly five years later, and the Author’s Guild is saying many of the same things I said then. It does seem like progress. In slow motion, but still progress.

  14. Phyllis Humphrey

    As I said last month when the AG tackled a different publisher “grab,” talk is cheap. Where is the full-page ad in the NYT?

  15. Ted, a few other people have made the point already, but just to briefly echo it: yes, the AG’s new blog position is at least arguably a step in the right direction. But when it comes to real action (supporting govt intervention against Amazon, for example), they’re always on the wrong side.

    The AG’s words seem to be moving in a positive direction (and though yes, late is better than never, my God, it took them long enough), but let’s see where and whether they really throw down. So far we’re talking about just a couple of blog posts. And if being publicly shamed for being fundamentally a tool of the publishing establishment has made them change at least some of their rhetoric, why let up the pressure now, when they still have so far to go before becoming worthy of the name they’ve bestowed upon themselves?

    I will say this: so far, they’ve allowed at least a few negative comments to run along with the post on their site. This, too, is progress–they used to censor people who disagreed with them. Maybe that’s changing, too.

    • Nine thousand members, each paying $125 a year, is over a million bucks in annual dues.

      And these members get advocacy in the form of… a blog post?

      Why, a million dollars could buy 10 NYT ads saying that forever-rights and low ebook royalties are wrong. That’s the way to force change, right?

      But seriously, here’s how you force change. No one on the AG staff accepts any offers with forever-rights and low ebook royalties, and they get a petition going of like-minded authors who demand the same. Mobilize the media to run the story, send some letters to publishing CEOs, and then START SELF-PUBLISHING.

      Watch how quickly contract terms get better.

  16. There’s no good reason why a book should be held hostage by a publisher for the lifetime of the copyright, the life of the author plus seventy years—essentially forever.

    Unfortunately, there is a very good reason. Supply to publishers is far to large for prevailing publisher prices to retailers.

    This kind of contract is a trade. Each side gives something. Publishers give advances, royalties, and a potential for distribution and sales that trigger payment above the advance.

    Authors give rights for a given period, first refusals on new books, restrictions on their subsequent activities, etc.

    Publishers demand more and more from authors because all those authors are competing with each other for the publishers’ limited slots.

    Simply stated, authors are paying more to get their book published. Ever hear the slogan, “Money flows to the author?” Hogwash. All kinds of value flows from the author, just not in the form of a check.

    It’s basic economics. We don’t have to like it, don’t have to approve of it, and can campaign against it. But the economic forces at work are far too powerful to overcome with moral suasion.

    Nothing AG does will change this. Nothing AG does can change it.

    What will change things? Lots more authors clicking the Amazon KDP Upload button. If supply to publishers falls, competition among authors for publishers’ slots will decrease, and authors will pay less to be published. That is a real pressure.

  17. Ted asked three questions. I’ll respond to each in turn:

    1. “What changes should be made in ‘standard’ publishing contract terms?”

    The reason various commentators are laughing at the AG only getting around to this in 2015 is because the answers are so obvious and so long understood by anyone paying even the slightest attention. For example, here’s a post–one of many–Joe Konrath wrote over three years ago, aptly called “Unconscionability.”

    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2012/05/unconscionability.html

    So yes, the AG is making some good observations about important topics that were widely understood and under discussion elsewhere years ago. Is it really not relevant to ask what the hell has taken them so long to address something this fundamental? What that delay might reveal about the real character and priorities of the organization?

    Their only claimed excuse, BTW, is that “only a few brave souls have asked why or argued with it because that’s the way it has always been.” Is this not an admission that the Collective Voice of American Authors is, at a minimum, less than brave about what should be its core mission? That with regard to that core mission, it has always reflexively accepted publisher abuse simply “because that’s the way it has always been”?

    Is it really that hard to understand the distrust, even the disgust, provoked by an organization that acts like this while claiming to champion the rights of authors? Is it really that shocking that a stunningly belated blog post or two doesn’t immediately ameliorate that distrust and disgust?

    2. “How best to educate authors, agents, and the public about them?”

    Someone once said, “If you want to get noticed, pick a fight” (I thought it was Banksy, but couldn’t verify–if anyone knows, I’d be curious). Good advice, and I doubt anyone would claim you can get more attention with a blog post than you can by picking a fight. And clearly the AG isn’t across-the-board *afraid* of picking fights; look what it’s done WRT Amazon and Google. So why is it willing to pick fights with Amazon and Google, but not with legacy publishers? Why even within the relatively safe confines of the very blog post under discussion here do they not call out even a single legacy publisher by name?

    It’s enough to make me wish there were a few brave souls involved with the AG. But apparently, the brave ones are all elsewhere.

    3. “How best to pressure publishers to accept such changes.”

    See my thoughts in response to your second question. Education won’t matter if it doesn’t get disseminated. So pick a fight. If you’re the AG, pull out the most egregiously one-sided examples among all the contracts you’ve ever seen, and publish them with attribution to the specific publisher behind them. *Shame* by *name.* You know, the way the organization does with, I don’t know, Amazon. The way I and others here do with the AG!

    I’m glad you asked these questions, Ted, and I hope my thoughts will help form a more complete picture of the AG’s deficiencies. Focusing only on one arguably positive thing they’ve belatedly done, without also discussing (i) why that thing has come so late; (ii) the other, egregious things they’ve long done; and (iii) the things they easily, obviously could be doing but aren’t, seems a tendentious way of assessing what the organization is most fundamentally about.

    FWIW, I don’t think anyone’s really arguing that the AG does only bad things for authors on every micro level. The argument is more that whatever positive micro-things the organization might offer authors are outweighed by the macro. Yes, the organization supports authors–but only within the confines of a system that is designed and maintained primarily for the benefit of publishers. The AG will help authors as long they don’t threaten the system itself–because the organization is dedicated most fundamentally to the preservation of the system, not to authors themselves.

    It’s easy to overlook this distinction–as easy as it is to miss the forest for the proverbial trees. To try another analogy: the AG is a great advocate for fish freedom–but only within the confines of the existing aquarium by which big publishing profits. If as a fish you agree with and support the aquarium, you can swim anywhere you like, and the AG will definitely help you find the best corners to feed in, that nice spot by the filter with the extra-oxygenated water, whatever. But what matters to the organization in the end isn’t the health of the fish; it’s the preservation of the aquarium. For anyone who longs for the ocean, that doesn’t feel like a good (or particularly honest) deal.

    Just my opinion for what it’s worth.

    • Great analogy. Now if only we can we work the “whale math” theorem into a unified theory of traditional publishing.

    • ::more applause::

    • Their only claimed excuse, BTW, is that “only a few brave souls have asked why or argued with it because that’s the way it has always been.”

      Aye, there’s the rub.

      The few writers who have publicly chastised the Big 6 have been essentially blackballed by them.

      That’s the price of standing up for what’s right. The first few to revolt get executed. But that’s how revolutions get started. Someone has to stand up and take the shots.

      • And when a viable alternative to established publishers emerges, the AG doesn’t point out its advantages, but instead joins with the publishers in attacking it.

  18. Ted seems to have been living under a rock these last few years. Poor Ted.

    I know that when I first began looking into self-publishing, in early 2011, the horrors of bad contracts were everywhere. So, we’ve been having this conversation for years, Ted. Years. Just because you’ve missed it doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.

    We get snarky because we see that nothing has changed. TAG gets on its high horse and bashes Amazon on behalf of publishers, with full page NYT ads and letters signed by big name authors — which they Fed Ex to the government, Ted — but when it comes to just little ol’ authors, it’s just a blog post. Actions speak louder than words, Ted.

    I’m not cutting the Guild any slack. They want to advocate for authors, they want things to change, then they get the NYT ads, they Fed Ex letters to the publishers. They get agents to back the authors instead of the publishers.

    Frankly, I don’t think it will happen. There are so many who will sign any publishing deal just to have the ability to call themselves “published”, it would take a massive sit in by big name authors and agents, not to mention every writers’ organization on the planet, and probably a government investigation into illegal contract terms. It will probably not ever happen unless publishing houses got out from under the corporate ownership it now lives under.

    What I’d like to see is a limited time contract, period. No “out of print” language at all, no monetary limits. A pick-and-choose menu where authors can agree to print only, or some combination of print and ebook rights. Foreign publication only on approval of separate terms. Let the author (with or without an agent) be in charge.

    At the end of five years, if a publisher hasn’t “nurtured” a writer’s career to their mutual satisfaction, then they walk away.

  19. I frequently see people asking “why publishers want to hold onto books that aren’t making them any money.”

    I think the answer is simple: each product they own the rights to is an asset on their books, a potential revenue stream for which all investment has already been made. The fact that they may internally represent that stream unrealistically in order to inflate their corporate valuation (much like keeping uncollectable Accounts Receivable on the books instead of writing them off) is beside the point. Honest corporations keep unlikely income off their books. Others, however…

    It costs them nothing to retain the rights and potentially increase their statement of their net worth. They gain nothing by allowing the rights to revert — why should they do it?

    The acceptance of contracts like that by authors is the root of the problem. Yes, I understand there was little choice, but that is no longer true. The situation can only ratchet in one direction over time — less restrictive contracts going forward. But for any author with existing contracts, with rare exception, it’s a lost cause — worth trying, but with little hope of success.

  20. Karen’s right. It’s an accounting artifact. Holding onto the rights doesn’t mean for a minute that they intend to exploit them to the author’s and publisher’s mutual benefit. It’s just so that “asset” appears on their balance sheet for a very long time.

    • I don’t know the accounting treatment for those books. There are several ways to do it. But, depending on the treatment, it is certainly possible that return of rights could result in a write down, and subsequent reduction in the period’s profits.

      But non-performing assets have to bite the dust sometime. Perhaps there is a minimal performance that keeps them out of the non-performing class. If so, eBooks make it much easier. Just leave them on Amazon forever.

  21. “A Publishing Contract Should Not Be Forever”

    Nah. Just life + 70.

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