May 22 2007
Sometimes I’ll blog about information that seems to be directed straight at writers and I wonder if some readers think to themselves, but this isn’t for us. It doesn’t affect us. Aren’t you guys a readers’ blog? We are, but sometimes industry changes have a great affect on we, the readers.
Simon & Schuster’s announcement of its contractual changes is an example of that. Last week, it was discovered that Simon & Schuster intended to include language in its contracts that would essentially eliminate any reversion of rights. What does reversion of rights mean? A little copyright lesson. Stay with me. It’s not that boring, I promise.
When an artist creates a work of art, this art has a copyright. The copyright is a form of protection that is granted by the U.S. Congress. Essentially, the writer of a book has the right to
- reproduce the work (make a copy)
- prepare derivative works (i.e., a series of books like the Black Dagger Brotherhood series or Eve Dallas series)
- distribute copies to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, by rental, lease or lending; (sell print rights)
- perform the work (i.e., sell the rights to have a movie or tv show based on it);
In a self publishing instance, the writer produces the book, creates the copies and distributes the copies to the public herself. In almost every other case, the writer produces a work and then sells the right to distribute the work to the public. The author says to the publisher the following:
you pay me $X amount of dollars; promise to print Y amount of my books and pay me $ in royalties and you can have the exclusive right to distribute my book to the fawning readership in the US or maybe even the world, if you pay me enough.
But, if my book goes out of print after so many years, I get the right of distribution back and can peddle my wares either myself (as Michele Albert is tinkering with) or I may sell them back to someone else.
Harlequin doesn’t allow certain books to go out of print. It republishes Nora Roberts, Jennifer Crusie, Diana Palmer, and other very popular authors so that those rights never revert back. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as the author gets paid royalties from every sale.
In the past, Simon & Schuster agreed that if ebook or POD sales fell below a minimum threshold “usually around 150 copies annually” the book would be declared out of print and the rights given back to the author. Not any more, says Simon & Schuster.
But why is that something we should care about? Here’s just a couple of ways this can adversely affect us readers.
- Simon & Schuster’s editors may want to buy a book that no other editor believes in but the author doesn’t want to be beholden to S&S for the rest of her life so she moves onto another book that another house may be interested in and we readers miss out on that book. No big deal you say? Not so. Look at the First Sale letters and how many books were rejected by house after house after house until just one editor believes. And then that author goes on to big success.
- Another, more insidious, way the contract changes affects readers is when a good book does poorly. Let’s say because of a bad cover, poor publicity an author’s career at Simon & Schuster is killed. We readers never really understand that beneath the boring background with a galloping horse lies an emotionally rich romance. The book dies and the author’s career dies. The book is never in print unless you specifically go and ask for it to be printed, perhaps at an extra charge, making you wait an extra period. Let’s face it ladies, when we go into a bookstore to buy books, we don’t want to have to order them and wait a week. We want them now. Even if they are only going home to lay on the TBR mountain.
- What if they decide to restructure like Luna did last year and instead of giving the rights back to Gail Dayton’s series or Laura Leone’s series, they held the rights to those books forever so long as one digital copy existed? Maybe Dayton with Juno Press and Leone with Daw will find revitalized success allowing readers who enjoy the series to continue to be readers of them. In the new Simon & Schuster contract world, those events would not happen.
And so books will go to the S&S vault and die, even if readers want to read them. Joan Wolf wrote this fabulous medieval series for HarperCollins. Due to poor sales, however, the series was canceled. Someday, Wolf will get her rights back and maybe she will be able to resell her idea with more books. I.e., get another advance for the bundle of rights and a promise of promotion and visibility whereas HarperCollins isn’t interested in pursuing this series thus Wolf isn’t going to write something that isn’t selling.
Connie Brockway wrote a character into her historical books by the name of Lord Strand. I have long wanted a book about him. Brockway wants to make money on her books and won’t write a Lord Strand book until she gets the rights back to All Through the Night.
Okay, here’s my fantasy. Bantam/Dell stops printing copies of All Through the Night. After three years (the period named in the original contract), I get the reversion of rights to the book. As I already have the rights to the first book in which Giles appeared, Promise Me Heaven, I then sell those two books, along with Giles’s story, to a publisher who packages the whole thing as a trilogy! Well, a girl can wish…
I would love to do Giles’s story. But until I get All Through the Night back, we’ll all just have to wait.
If Simon & Schuster is successful, I suspect that many other houses will follow suit. HarperCollins president and CEO Jane Friedman, believes that no fiction title should go out of print.
The statement by Simon & Schuster is that the contract “reflects the fact that print on demand titles may now be readily purchased by consumers at both online and brick and mortar stores.” Alas, while Simon & Schuster has a nice selection of ebooks, its catalog is by no means complete. I also don’t know how to obtain a POD book at a brick and mortar store. How will the reader know that this elusive backlist title is even available? Certainly our first instinct would be to hit the used bookstores if it is not readily stocked in the shelves.
S&S indicates it will negotiate this clause on a case by case basis which Georges Borchardt of the Borchardt Agency says will create a two-tiered system whereby big name authors, like Johanna Lindsey, would get a favorable contract and midlist author like Laura Moore would get the big shaft up the ass contract.
What’s good for authors, in this case, is good for readers. And it’s not good for Simon & Schuster because if this rights grab takes a foothold in publishing, Simon & Schuster will miss out on buying books that some other publisher may have bought the rights to initially but failed to see the promise. It’s just a bad deal all around.