Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Right to the Rights

Literary agents are up in arms, as are published authors. For the rest of us, well, we've bigger fish to fry. The dust up in the publishing world doesn't affect us, not yet, and in all likelihood, never.

Simon & Schuster decided to change their contract terms, out of the blue. From here on in, the publishing house would hold the rights to a title in perpetuity. At least that's how agents read it, and the Authors Guild came to the same conclusion. There was a time when an author got the rights back to their book when it stopped selling. It might have gone out of print, or sales might have hit some low, low level and the publisher lost interest. "Here, go on, take it back, so," the publishers used to say. "I've no use for this title, and no one else has either. Fair play to you if you can find another house willing to print this old rag."

Sometimes, a resurgent interest in a particular author, or a serendipitous rediscovery of an old title, would mean new fame and fortune for a forgotten writer. Holding the reverted rights, said author could march down the road to another publisher and get the book sent out again, to make a little more money. All very good for the author, who maintained a bit of control over their intellectual property, but Simon & Schuster realized that they could be losing a little profit. Hence, new language was plonked into the contract.

Simon & Schuster plans to hold on to the rights for ever and ever, because with Print On Demand technology, a book is never really out of print. Sure, back before the POD revolution, it cost too much to run the presses for a single copy, so the book was declared out of print and the author could have it back. Now the publisher can claim that the book is never out of print, because if someone wants a copy, it's easy enough to produce a single book. That being the case, the author never gets the out of print rights reversion. And if, for some odd reason, the book garners a bit of interest, Simon & Schuster reaps all the rewards.

From an author's standpoint, Simon & Schuster has no incentive to promote a book after it's peaked, while an author would actively promote their little darling. As things now stand, literary agents have no incentive to sell manuscripts to Simon & Schuster, because it's not in the best interest of their clients. As long as the other big houses don't follow Simon & Schuster's lead, it's going to be tough sledding for S & S.

But you and I, we have no literary agent trying to sell our manuscripts to anyone. We're at the waiting stage, waiting for the twenty-five literary journals to make up their minds about the short stories we sent. We're waiting for the twelve literary agents to read the queries we've sent since the end of April, with no response. But that is the response now, isn't it? All this other business, about rights and such? I'm too busy worrying about my opening pages to care.

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