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POD means in print forever

25 June 2007

A row has erupted about publishers' attempts to rewrite author contracts to allow for changes in technology which make it possible to keep books perpetually 'in print'.

Big US publishers Simon & Schuster have been trying to insist that authors and agents sign contracts that assign all rights, in perpetuity, to the publisher, and had refused to negotiate alternative terms. The Authors' Guild of America took a firm stand on the issue and they have been backed by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of American, which said:

'This decision by Simon & Schuster constitutes a massive rights grab and is an attempt to take advantage of authors. The members of SFWA, Inc. stand with the Authors Guild in this matter... we urge Simon & Schuster to rescind this pernicious policy.'

The latest news is that S&S appear willing to negotiate a 'revenue-based threshold', ie an annual figure which would have to be reached if a book was to be considered to be in print. Agents in the UK and the UK Society of Authors are pushing for a threshold based on the rate of sale, which would fit more easily with existing contracts.

In many ways it is surprising that this has not happened before. Print on demand technology makes it possible to keep a book in print indefinitely, printing one copy at a time when it is ordered. But traditional author contracts include a reversion clause. This gives the author the right to get the rights in their book back if the publisher allows it to go out of print and does not reprint it within a set time (generally six or nine months).

This clause has given an author valuable protection against a situation where their book is out of print, and thus not available in the shops for anyone to buy or order. The author cannot earn any royalties from it. Efficient agents (and authors) have in the past made sure that publishers were kept up to the mark on this, so that reversion would be requested unless a reprint was put in hand.

The problem in practical terms has always been that the author then has to find another publisher, which has become increasingly difficult as backlists are pruned. Publishers will not take on a book originally published by someone else unless the author has a lot of clout or selling power. Authors have therefore sometimes left their rights with a publisher in the often vain hope that at some point the book might be reprinted.

But the very print on demand opportunity which is giving new life to publishers' backlists is also offering authors the chance to republish their own work and make sure that it is kept in print. Authors have not moved on to considering this possibility in large numbers yet, but this is only the beginning of what could become a major trend.

Print on demand (from Inside Publishing series)

The advantages of print on demand

WritersPrintShop self-publishing service