"A Naked Power Grab"

That’s what National Writers Union president Jerry Colby is calling the move by Simon & Schuster to change their standard contract language to retain rights to a book even if it is stored only as an electronic file. For authors, this is a REALLY BIG DEAL.

Simon & Schuster is violating the principle that a publisher should retain rights to a book only if it continues to invest significantly in the work,” said NWU president Jerry Colby. “This move is a naked power grab.” S&S has argued that with improvements in print-on-demand technology it has the ability to keep an author’s book available for sale over the term of the license. That is not a good enough reason to keep the rights, the NWU believes. “It costs virtually nothing to keep an electronic file on a computer waiting for the occasional customer,” Colby said. “It does not represent a significant investment and certainly should not be an excuse for tying up rights.” If POD is the only feasible way to keep some older titles available, Colby said, those rights should be controlled by the author, not the publisher.

The real beef is the accurate definition of the term “in print”. Normally that means a book in paper format available for purchase. In the industry it also means a book that sells fairly well and gets attention from the publisher. If there are little or no sales, the publisher forgets about the title and at that point a contract clause usually goes into effect which reverts the copyright back to the author. Then they’re free to do what they want with the title. They can revise it and solicit a new publisher. They can self publish. They can put it on the web for sale, or whatever.

With this contract change, S&S seems to be saying, “that was then, this is now”. They have a point. The market has changed. Print on demand is a real option today. Publishers can make real money in electronic publishing. Technology makes it easy to keep hundreds of thousands of books on a computer hard disk. S&S won’t win any awards for author relations, but from a business perspective, it makes sense to keep rights as long as possible even if the book doesn’t really look like a traditional book anymore.

By the way, this isn’t a new tactic. I know a publisher who puts ‘out of print’ books into an OSI category – “out of stock indefinitely”. By doing this they avoid their own contract reversion clause. More and more, publishers will do things like this to hold on to rights longer. After all, what’s a publisher without rights?

Authors will need to get smarter going into their relationship with the publisher. Publishers won’t settle with print only rights today. Authors will have to weigh the costs of going with a publisher or going it alone. The good news is, thanks to technology, the latter isn’t out of the question.

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