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E-Rights: A New World for Authors & Publishers

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The Internet is opening more than just expanded sales opportunities to publishers. Internet technology now allows for the protected sale of entire books-one volume at a time, or particular segments of certain books-piece by piece, to a variety of buyers. In addition, handheld devices-e-books-are said to soon be capable of making electronic books as comfortable to read as printed books.
But there are a number of big differences between these types of books for publishers. For one thing, electronic books never technically go out-of-print; a digital version can remain “in print” in a publisher’s database virtually forever, available for single copy reproduction (books on demand) as well as for transmission, in whole or part, over the Internet. As a result, some publishers are holding that the rights to any titles they acquire from an author remain the property of the acquiring publisher for some 70 years beyond the author’s death.
If a publisher is aggressively promoting a title through the sale of its electronic versions, there is probably no problem. Everyone can benefit from the added life given a title electronically. But if a publisher ceases to promote a book or fails to pursue avenues of expanded e-commerce, yet claims ownership to the copyright because of occasional electronic sales, an author may be stuck in less than a satisfactory relationship.
Publishers who sell foreign rights to their titles may be in the same boat as authors when it comes to foreign language editions. Foreign language editions may now never technically go out of print, even while weak marketing leaves the original owner looking at lost opportunities abroad. Publishers need to be aware of the changes in the industry and to take steps to protect their interests in the future. Here are two points I think you should consider when making a foreign rights deal in this new environment:

  • Think about using a specific time frame when licensing the rights for reprint or translation of a title in another country. A three- or five-year time frame could cover any form of publication in any format with further rights renegotiable or reverting to the original owner at the end of the period. 
  • If a specific time frame is not convenient, you could enter a specific clause in a foreign rights agreement that refers to electronic publishing matters. If you choose this option, I suggest that you select a higher royalty on electronic sales on the grounds that the foreign publisher has greatly reduced storage and inventory fees. It also makes sense that you be entitled to a minimum fee whether or not a book is sold electronically during any royalty accounting period.

As all of us experience more of what may be involved with this new aspect of the publishing business-in fairness to authors, to foreign publishers, and to ourselves-we need to share that information in forums like the PMA Newsletter and at our trade shows. In this way, a body of commonly accepted e-practices can arise to capture the adherence of all publishers.
This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor January, 1999, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.


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