E-Book Controversy

Last Friday, Markus Dohle, chief executive of Random House, sent a letter to dozens of literary agents, writing that the company’s older agreements gave it “the exclusive right to publish in electronic book publishing formats.”

This action was taken after the family of William Styron, author of Sopie’s Choice and other classics, decided to pursue electronic editions of his works independent of Random House. An article in the New York Times business section written on December 12th, outlines the position of authors and their heirs, which basically says that the rights to electronic versions belongs solely to them.

As a counter-point Jonathan Galassi, the president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, wrote an op/ed piece for the NY Times stating that the electronic rights should be shared due primarily because of the contributions the publishing house made to the final product through editing, production, and marketing.

Those are both interesting articles that illustrate just how much advances in technology have changed the scope of publishing.

My earliest contracts with NY publishers specified what rights the publisher was buying and for how long. Of course, those were before people thought e-books were going to amount to anything, so that was not specified. The material was copyrighted in my name,
not the publisher’s, so the rights were still mine.

My latest contracts from 2008 specified that the company was buying the hardback rights only and the author retained the rights to paperback, electronic, digital and all other ancillary markets. I did have to agree not to pursue any of those other avenues for a full year after the hardback version came out.

When it comes to most publishing contracts, they are more like a licensing agreement than an outright sale. Since those contracts entered into in the 50’s with some of the authors mentioned in the story didn’t specify that Random House was licensing all rights, it is obvious to me that those electronic rights belong to the author and/or the heirs.

And as compelling as Mr. Galassi’s argument is that the publisher deserves more compensaion for the money expended for editing, production, marketing and artwork put into the original publication, it doesn’t have a legal basis. Plus, let’s not forget that the publishers more than recoup those expenses considering the typical royalty split with the author.

The most important point that seems to get lost in considering who should get the lion’s share of revenue from a book is the fact that there would be no book without the author. The marketing departments of publishing companies treat books like product only, forgetting that creative output is different from any other productive output. It’s not like making cars, or computer chips, or tortilla warmers. Nobody else could write Mark Twain’s books or William Styron’s or yours or mine.


What do you think? Is Random House just trying to make a land grab?

3 thoughts on “E-Book Controversy”

  1. I think it’s a shame that the author is the neglected link in the chain. My first books were published as digital, so I have had no problem with rights in that respect. But another publisher does hard cover only, and all the other rights become a jumble.

  2. In the end, it doesn’t matter what the op/ed writers think–a federal court said that ebook rights did NOT belong to the publishers unless they so specified in the contract. And that decision has been upheld in Appellate courts. Dohle tried to strong arm agents into thinking otherwise, so the Writer’s Guild posted an open letter to those same agents detailing the court decision.

    The bottom line is that unless the contract states that the publisher has the rights to a specific format, it doesn’t and the author retains them. It’s not a matter of opinion, it’s the law!

  3. With all the new advances in publishing still to come, the division of rights must be clear and defined. Since I’m a writer (and since I believe it’s right), I feel the writer should maintain a fair share of the profits. And when an author dies, I feel the estate should control the rights in the place of the writer.

    Straight From Hel

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