The Business of Writing > Laws about Writing

Protect it or Lose it


October 26, 1998
Dear Author:
As you are undoubtedly aware, there have been some exciting developments in electronic publishing technology, and they are going to change if not revolutionize every aspect of the business. As your own interests will be affected we want to describe these briefly to you, to make some recommendations and sound some alarms.
1. Print on demand. Publishers, distributors, and booksellers now have the capability to print economically single copies of a book upon request by a consumer.
2. Online sale of books. Electronic versions of books may be ordered directly from publishers or from companies like, to be read on handheld electronic reading devices known as e-books. Though these devices are still expensive and certain technical problems remain, there is no question that the price will come down and the quality will go up, and portable e-books will eventually win consumer acceptance.

The good news for authors is that these developments will enable them to reach larger audiences for their work, and to earn more royalties. But the bad news more than outweighs the good.

Because electronic versions of your book, unlike print-on-paper versions, never go out of print, publishers have begun to take the position that even after there are no hard copies available in stores or warehouses, your book is still, technically, in print. Why? Because it is digitally stored in the memory of your publisher's computer, available for printing your book on demand or transmitting it online to consumers.

This means that when you believe your book is out of print (in the traditional sense of the term), your publisher may refuse to revert your rights to you. Under current copyright law, that means that your publisher will be entitled to keep your book exclusively until seventy years after your death.

What is worse, publishers are beginning to insist on those same interpretations of "in print" and "out of print" when you sell them a new work. To put it plainly, that means you must sell it to them forever. Perhaps they will actually exploit your book aggressively and earn good royalties for you. But if they don't, you're out of luck. You will never be able to recover the rights to that book.

There's something else you should know. Publishers entering the electronic book field are offering authors a traditional royalty, around 10% or 15%. Such royalties make sense for books printed on paper because of the expenses incurred by conventional publishers such as paper, printing, production, warehousing, and distribution. But the costs of storing your book on a disk and fulfilling an electronic order for it are negligible, and it is certainly not out of line for authors to be thinking of far higher royalty percentages.

Author and agent organizations are awakening to these threats and developing strategies for combating them. Among those strategies are: limiting publishers to a term of years when they acquire new books; requiring a minimum annual royalty if a book's earning drop below a certain dollar figure; and contesting publishers' expanded definition of "in print".

How can authors protect themselves?

First, by raising the consciousness of all authors about this threat to their interests. Forward this e-mail to every author and author group you know.

Second, by raising the consciousness of editors, who may not be aware of, or may not be comfortable with, their company's policies or the implications of those policies.

Third, by supporting those publishers that are flexible and negotiable about their definitions of "in print" and "out of print" and about royalties payable on electronic versions of books.

Finally, by supporting efforts of author and agent organizations to promote author-friendly approaches to the in-print, out-of-print and the electronic royalties issues.

When you or your agent negotiate your next book deal, you may be given a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum by the publisher that it expects to acquire rights in perpetuity. You will have to decide whether you wish to accept those terms or risk that your book will go unsold. Individual authors or agents may not be in a position to resist such demands. Only the collective actions of a united author and agent community will overcome such pressure.

For this reason -- because this is no less than a matter of survival -- we urge you to do all you can to fight the takeover of your most precious asset: your copyright.


[0] Message Index

Go to full version