Publishing’s Bad Infinity: Authors Guild Calls For Time-Limited Contracts

Image - iStockphoto: AlfaProxima
Image – iStockphoto: AlfaProxima

‘To Keep Pace With The Times’

We believe three basic changes are urgently needed:

  1. Time-limited contracts,
  2. A clause that provides for reversion of unexploited rights, and
  3. A specific new unchallengeable definition to replace historic “out of print” clauses that are not remotely relevant in the electronic age.

As you’ll know if you’ve been following along here, the Authors Guild’s Fair Contracts Initiative is being rolled out in intermittent releases of position papers. You can read about the campaign’s overall goals and positions here, in A Digital Picket Line: The Authors Guild Would Like Your Attention, and in Writers And Their Business: Don’t Assume It’s All For One.

This week, another plank of the author-advocacy group’s platform is nailed into place with A Publishing Contract Should Not Be Forever.

This is so contentious an issue in the industry now that it’s one of two major aspects of the new Canelo publishing house’s approach to authors in London. There, the company has opened with 50 percent digital royalties (instead of the widely hated 25 percent) and five-year caps on contracts.

What is the standard? If you don’t know this, sit down. It’s the full term of copyright, which means the life of the author plus 70 years. That’s how long a traditional publishing house has typically expected to hold an author’s rights to his or her work.

As the Authors Guild describes it:

A publisher may go bankrupt or be bought by a conglomerate, the editors who championed the author may go on to other companies, the sales force may fail to establish the title in the marketplace and ignore it thereafter, but no matter how badly the publisher mishandles the book, the author’s agreement with the original publisher is likely to remain in effect for many decades.

Wide-Eyed And Vulnerable

Like several elements of typical publishing tradition, this may sound all but absurd to someone from another business sector encountering it for the first time. But publishing is an industry that has, over generations, grandfathered in and accommodated many practices that in 2015 look at best peculiar and at worst curiously extreme — even punitive in relation to their least expendable workers, the authors who create the raw material of the realm.

The Guild, aware of how little-known some of the industry’s protocols are among the consumer base — and keen on how closely many authors today are communicating with their readerships through social media — has begun this public pressure campaign to bring new attention to some of the conditions they feel are the least tenable for authors.

Some say readers don’t care about their authors’ working conditions.

Others think that getting some daylight on these issues could help change them.

There’s a particular interest in the Authors Guild administration in supporting writers who may not be agented. Agents are in many cases able to adjust what the Guild says is more than 100 elements of a standard contract. That’s what negotiation by good agents can do. (For a strong series of articles on good agenting, I recommend the pieces being written by Kristin Nelson.) By contrast, unrepresented writers won’t know what to ask to have changed in a contract, let alone how to negotiate those things.

The Guild’s position is that it’s insupportable for the industry to operate with contracts that could knowingly mislead any authors, most of all those who are unprotected by agents or attorneys. Can there be any defense for obfuscating such issues to take advantage of an author’s ignorance?

I’d like to point out that I’m always glad to hear from representatives of the traditional industry who may have input or feelings about the Fair Contract Initiative or any of its points. The best way to reach me is through the contact page on my site or to flag me down on Twitter (@Porter_Anderson). For various reasons of corporate and legal reality, it can be difficult for publishing companies to speak up for themselves amid criticism of the kind the Guild is mounting in its role of author advocacy. While I call this “the silence of the trads,” there are genuine business-based reasons for that lack of response in some cases. I encourage anyone who can respond from the industry about its contracts to let me know.

Read More

There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether:  Publishing’s Bad Infinity: Authors Guild Calls For Time-Limited Contracts

Originally published by Thought Catalog at




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