It took me a while to come up with a catchy headline for this me-too post about the latest twist in the big trade publishing game. In their 2006 book titled "Keywords in Creative Writing" published by the Utah State University Press, authors Wendy Bishop and David Starkey quoted me describing publishers as "little more than law firms with an editorial department in tow..." I was trying to express the centrality of Intellectual Property rights in the publishing business, rights which are governed by the book contract.
Book contracts traditionally include some language about the rights reversion process for when the book goes out of print. It's always been understood that this reversion of rights clause is for the benefit of the author, as it wouldn't cost the publisher anything to retain the rights for as long as the copyright remained in force and simply not do anything with them. However, some publishers are getting greedy, and want to keep books in print forever, with no sales minimums.
The reactions of these publishers to the uproar amongst authors, agents and their advocacy groups are all the more surprising for their honesty. Publisher's Weekly newsletter contained the following quote from Adam Rothberg of Simon & Shuster:
"...We are embracing print on demand technology as an unprecedented opportunity for authors and publishers to keep their books alive and available and selling in the marketplace in a way that may not have been previously possible for many authors, and are confident in the long term that it will be a benefit for all concerned..."
Harper Collins President and CEO Jane Friedman was quoted in the AP story as saying:
"There is no reason for a fiction title to go out of print, because you never known when there is going to be an audience for that book."
What Adam and Jane fail to mention is that there may be a reason for the author to want back the rights of a book the publisher is failing to keep in bookstores, which is the only service most authors expect out of a large trade publishers these days. Publishers without a reasonable reversion clause in their contracts could use those contracts as a whip to punish authors who want to leave for another publisher, by effectively taking the author's titles out of print but insisting that they are still available through electronic or on-demand means. The lack of a reversion clause leaves the ball entirely in the publisher's court, and the author dependent on the publisher's honor.
Good grief, publishers with honor? The new and improved book contracts allow the publishers to enslave authors for life, plus seventy years. And the sad thing is that thousands of new authors every year will sign these contracts without legal advice on the assurance of the friendly acquisitions editor that it's "our standard contract."
UPDATE (I rarely do this, particularly the same day:-)
A serious author friend just e-mailed to ask why authors would ever want rights back if the publisher was willing to keep the book in-print. We aren't talking about traditional in-print here, where the publisher has books in the warehouse that they are motivated to sell. We are talking about fake in-print, where the publisher uses the fact the book COULD be ordered through POD or as an ebook to keep the rights long after the author's death.
In the case of fiction authors, it may be that they wouldn't generate many sales if they got the rights back and self published, but authors have traditionally had the right to try. In the Internet age, authors can't lose by publishing older works on a website to judge the demand, make contact with readers, and generate interest in newer works.
In the case of nonfiction, the perpetual in-print clause is even more obnoxious. It prevents authors who have signed a contract with a non-compete clause from ever working that area again, unless they are willing to stick with the same publisher (on that publisher's terms) or risk legal action. It also prevents the author from updating the work in a new edition to either sell to another publisher or to self publish, not to mention web publishing. It leaves all of the decisions about the future of the book in the hands of the publisher, forever. The perpetual in-print contract turns the author into a slave.