e-books and backlists -- the past and future collide
This story in today's Times about the attempts by traditional publishers like Random House to claim exclusive e-book rights to backlist titles based on vague, intentionally ambiguous wording in old contracts reminded me of my brief stint at Time Warner, working as an editor for their iPublish brand. There were many good ideas in that sadly short-lived enterprise, and many duties that I performed with excitement and pride, but among them was not my responsiblity for locking down the rights to backlist titles by insisting to authors, their estates, and/or their agents, that wording in original contracts drawn up before e-book or print-on-demand technologies existed or were even contemplated gave us the exclusive rights to those books. Most agents, I'm happy to say, did not go along with this attempt to brazenly stake out new turf at the expense of their backlist authors. But as today's article shows, the problem has not gone away.
I personally think it's a mistake for any author to sign away e-book or print-on-demand rights without some kind of strict time and/or sales-figure limitation. Otherwise, the publisher will be able to make the claim that the book remains in print, and rights will quite literally never revert to the author--even if the publisher never sells another copy, physical or digital, of the book. It's unconscionable for publishers to try and trick or browbeat their authors into giving away such rights.
A strong writers union would help here. But, for so many reasons, that's just not going to happen. Writers, remember: the publisher is not your friend. The publisher is your enemy. You may make a truce, enter into detente, even temporary alliance -- but do not forget that they view their interests as distinct from yours, and they will fuck you over when it suits them to do so.