Friday, May 18, 2007

Contractual Obligations and Negotiations: Your Thoughts on S and S

I’ve been following the Simon & Schuster boilerplate contract change with some interest. On one hand I’m surprised that no publishing company had yet to try this tactic given that Print On Demand technology has been heralded as the next new thing (to replace the need for big brick and mortar stores even) for years now. While I’ve never believed that POD kiosks would replace the bookstore experience, the availability of the technology merges nicely with Chris Anderson’s long tail theory. Books previously unavailable because they’d dropped below the minimum number to stay in print would be available for immediate print and delivery through the POD system. You many not sell a thousand or more books at one time, but you could sell a thousand different books to one or two people* (the same idea can be applied to ebooks, which take up a minute amount of space to store forever).

It makes sense then why a publisher would want to maintain control of a title long after it has ceased selling in the thousands. Publishers make most of their income from the backlist titles, and through POD and ebooks, that list can now stretch back forever—a backlist that could make them money for no cost to maintain. No more curriculum changes forced on teachers because they can’t get the right book or students forced to wait on ILL to get the book they need. No more crying because your favorite author’s backlist is unavailable due to being out of print.

The downside to this is, as the Authors Guild states, is “if you sign a contract with Simon & Schuster that includes this clause, they’ll say you’re wed to them. Your book will live and die with this particular conglomerate.” You’re not guaranteed that your book will receive any more advertising (something you might be able to do if you took the project to another publisher) or availability to brick and mortar stores down the road. This also means you would not be able to use an electronic file as a free book giveaway on your site like Michele Albert did to help stir the interest in her newest series or sell her other ebook title through a distributor for just $1.50.

Whether or not you believe that offering free books to your readership helps boost sales is not the issue though, the issue is whether or not this contract takes into account both the author and the publisher’s rights when it comes to the source material. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the Simon & Schuster debate: do you think (as they do) that the boilerplate change is being blown out of proportion, or do you find that it infringes on the author’s rights to shop their past material around elsewhere?

Do you think that this boilerplate change comes to early given that the use of POD technology is still not wide spread and there’s no guarantee that there won’t be something better that comes along later?

I know it is mean to make you think on a Friday, but I want to hear your thoughts. Has S&S gone too far or simply made an informed business decision given the changing landscape of book publishing?

*I’m pretty sure someone else said this—and said it better—but I can’t for the life of me remember who I’m paraphrasing. If you know the source, let me know so I can cite the correct source.


Kimberly/lectitans said...

I'm reading through all of it and tend to side with the Authors Guild, but mostly I think it's a fascinating debate about new technology. I'm going to mention it to my recently-graduated-from-Law-School new-technologies-IP-expert boyfriend. And maybe he'll write a paper about it. And submit it to a journal. Or maybe he'll be like, "Huh." And then we might never speak of it again. But I think it's fascinating.

Anonymous said...

I think a simple look at numbers would be enough to see who this change benefits (hint: it's not the authors). If a major publisher's sales for a given title have fallen low enough that they are not re-printing via traditional means, then they are not going to expend any money or effort on further promoting or pushing that book. Any incremental money they get from the "dribs and drabs" of every-once-in-a-while POD sales is a drop in the bucket to their bottom line. The only real reason they want to lock in these titles is simply on the chance that said author might eventually, someday, hit it big, either with them or with somebody else. Then they have a golden property still on their books that costs them nothing extra. Forget all about the other 99% of the books they also locked up to wither away and die with no further chance to make it with another publisher who might care more about the author or the niche the books inhabit... This isn't about altruism on the part of publishers just wanting to make sure readers can always find that one special book. It's about corporate avarice. And while an agent may be able to negotiate it out of contract, that's less likely to happen with new authors. And it's precisely the new author who has the most to lose: if the first publisher doesn't back that new writer at the beginning, there may still be time to switch horses and keep the career moving. But if the books are locked up forever with a house that spends all of its dollars on their mega blockbusters... well, 'nuff said. (Blogger still doesn't want to recognize me anymore. This is Kevin Radthorne again...)

Karen Scott said...

Personally, I'm only seeing one winner here. The publisher.

The problem is I can't see many established authors signing a contract that includes this clause. The newbies may not mind the marriage, grateful as they usually are when they finally get contracted, but I definitely foresee many bitter divorce cases in the future, once they realise that actually the marriage isn't healthy for them.