From an author, an interesting point in a private communication about a possible role — and possible mishandling of it — for agents in the question of reversions of rights and contract reform in publishing.
This author writes to say that she has had some success (“not easy”) in getting some backlist rights reverted to her. And she goes on:
However. Please know that some agents do not actively market the books they’ve sold and that have gone out of print — yet they hold some rights. I am not prepared to open this discussion, as it needs more survey/input, but when an agent does not keep up with out-of-print books, remarket them, etc., some agents still hold such rights as film, etc.
So. Out-of-print books discussion should also ask for input on agent contracts…(Name of agency-created imprint) is a publisher composed of agents directing their clients with out-of-print books to enlist. If those agents hold certain rights, what choice does the author have? This topic needs a survey, or more input, but agents are a problem, too, in some cases equal to the publisher.
I haven’t included the name of the agency-based publishing imprint that the author mentions because she has offered no evidence that the imprint is working in a way it shouldn’t. I’m not interested in hearsay.
But I think she’s raising two different principles.
The first seems to be that there are cases in which agents are failing to assist their authors in getting rights back when a case can be made for out-of-print.
The second needs clarification. The arrangements in which an agency may publish authors’ titles vary widely, as do the rights agreements that underpin those arrangements.
The overall question of where agents might stand on calls for rights-reversion, however, is one we haven’t been able to get close to in #FutureChat because agents seem anything but quick to engage in these discussions. i was sorry that we didn’t have an active agenting community presence in our chat, for that matter. Agents are always most welcome to join in on these events.
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We also had a couple of welcome comments on the walkup to the chat, glad of that.
Maud St. James holds that:
The only fair way is not by money, but by time. Five years from the date of the contract (NOT the date of publication) the rights revert to the author. Period. Of course, at that time the contract can be renegotiated, but if mutual agreement isn’t reached, the book is automatically reverted to its author. There should also be a time cap on this renegotiation, say three months.
And Joe Konrath was good enough to leave a message, glad he did. I’ve been remiss in not answering but felt I might like to get at this in the wider forum.
Joe joins us with two points. I’m adding numbers (so helpful, right?), then I’ll take up the second one briefly. So here’s Konrath.
(1) I got my backlist back. Hire a lawyer. Email me and I’ll recommend one.
(2) I also want to expand upon a point. The “cavalry”, as you called the Authors Guild, isn’t “saddling up.” They’re blogging that contracts are unfair, but they aren’t going anywhere near their horses. That’s the point of my chiding. They aren’t storming the castle. They aren’t even discussing the possibility of storming the castle. They’re whining about how the castle conducts business, and nothing more.
But when it comes to sending a letter to Congress to bring SOPA back, or a letter to the Attorney General supporting Authors United, the Authors Guild saddles up, rides, and storms those castles. They have the capacity for action. But their ‘fair contract initiative” thusfar hasn’t resulted in any action. Only whining.
I blogged about this, and linked to it in the AG comments section. The AG deleted it because they don’t allow links. But here it is so you and your readers can get a broader view of how ineffective the AG actually is.
Nothing wrong with either point, of course, and I’m glad we have Konrath’s input. Anyone who has misgivings about the Authors Guild’s work is perfectly in his or her right to say so. And many do. I have, myself, been known to question some of the past regime’s positions (the Scott Turow-led period). I find these days that my difficulty at times with criticism like Konrath’s involves two concerns:
(1) To my mind, this is a new management. With Mary Rasenberger in place as executive director since January and with Roxana Robinson onboard as president since spring 2014, I think that it’s early to expect complete overhauls and I think that watching and keeping an open mind is a good idea. This need not relate to any item or position, just to the time frame as a whole in the case of a large organization at a volatile time in the history of the careers it represents (writers in digital agony, as it were). Guild leadership,we can assume, entails a remarkably complex and unprecedented set of political complications.
For example, there’s the question of the Guild’s Amazonian stance in alignment with the Authors United group. That’s an issue of author-industry politics and not one easily parsed or even understood. I can appreciate some of the complaints Konrath and his fellows have about that, yes. On the other hand, claims that the Guild is cozy with the industry when the Fair Contract Initiative is obviously saying things the industry would rather not have said about its standard contracts don’t lie very easily on the table. If this is only “whining,” as Konrath describes it, it cannot possibly be whining that echoes happily in the halls of money at the Big Five and and I’m not convinced that laying out the parameters of disageement in these unprecedented white papers is to be so quickly discounted. Storming castles may follow. Announcing one’s grievances is normally a way to start. I’m interested to see how this plays out.
(2) My second point is that when we hear complaints about the Authors Guild from writers, I think it’s important to remember that this is not the same as complaining about a private corporation such as that substantial thing in Seattle. The Guild is a membership organization. This means that its leadership serves at the pleasure of its members. Writers can join the Guild and can affect that leadership. I don’t know the Guild’s bylaws, but in my own experience of career-industry trade service organizations, one can join up, engage, maybe get a seat on the board, propose new agenda items, rally votes for those items and largely change the direction of one’s membership organization. That’s why they’re there, for the membership. You also get called a “young turk” in the process, I always find that flattering.
My recommendation, then, to someone like Konrath and others who feel so strongly that the Guild is headed in the wrong direction (and not even near its horses, as he sees it) is to consider what a strong following he has from years of hard work and commentary. That’s an electorate-in-waiting. I’d recommend going in, signing up the followers as a voting bloc and getting busy. I’d say it’s the American way but I fear the John Philip Sousa music might swell up and it’s too hot for marching. But there are avenues of change in situations like this and one hopes that smart heads and committed hearts will consider them.
“Whining” is easy for any of us to fall into, whether inside or outside of a big organization.
And so to a selection of tweets from our mighty #FutureChat coterie on author contract reversion clauses and the problem of backlists that can’t be retrieved for proper reissue and marketing. Thank you all for your input, join us weekly, you’re always welcome and appreciated here on our long journey into the digital glory that surely awaits us all.
By Porter Anderson Follow @Porter_Anderson
The FutureBook: When rights go wrong: A #FutureChat recap
Read the full post at: TheBookseller.com/futurebook
In our FutureBook Conference later this year, Peter Meyers will chair a panel on the nature and potentials of content in the digital age, and he is also to lead a special interactive discussion in the outlook for the book and its new possibilities. More details on the conference are to come soon. Mark your calendar for 4th December and plan to join us at The Mermaid.