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Publishers and authors battle over digital (e-book) rights

December 13, 2009

Tags: rights

Motoko Rich's NY Times story, Legal Battles Over E-Book Rights to Older Books (12-13-09), is about who owns rights to backlist titles covered by contracts written before digital rights emerged. The underlying issue: Publishers are not offering high enough royalties on e-books, which are cheaper to produce than print books. Typically, publishers are offering only 25 percent royalties on e-books. Many prominent authors and agents believe this should be more like a subsidiary rights split than a royalty share. Publishers, desperate to save a sinking ship, may be pushing too far. Rich quotes Andrew Wylie, the agent for the estates of Ralph Ellison and Vladimir Nabokov (whose books are not yet e-books), as saying, “I think the potential danger that publishers run by not talking this through carefully, is that they will be excluded from e-book rights in a significant way.”
Amanda Urban, literary agent for the late Joseph Heller, contends that the e-book rights for Catch 22 rest with the author's estate. Random House contends that contracts give it rights to publication "in book form." What is a book?

Jeffrey Trachtenberg wrote about this issue in the Wall Street Journal 12-12-09: Random House Claims Digital Rights to Past Books (If this link doesn't work, google the title and Nat Sobel and the full story may come up.) Random House claims that "the exclusive right to publish 'in book form' or 'in any and all editions'" includes digital rights. But Random House lost its 2002 suit to prevent RosettaBooks publish author-licensed e-book editions of works by William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Robert Parker. Agent Nat Sobel (who represents Knopf authors James Ellroy and Richard Russo) says courts have agreed with the position that contracts 20 years ago didn't include electronic rights. We'll be hearing more about this hot major issue. Authors: read those contracts before you sign them!

You can find many key stories about e-book rights, markets, and battles for control (between publishers and authors/agents, between publishers and Amazon Kindle etc.)at On Amazon's Kindle, the Sony Reader,
and conflicts about e-book markets and rights
, under Publishing and e-publishing on the Writers and Editors website.


  1. December 13, 2009 2:35 PM EST
    This Shatzkin file is also of interest: The ebook windowing controversy has subtext (http://www.idealog.com/blog/the-ebook-windowing-controversy-has-subtext). Shatzkin writes: "this is really about the agents and publishers trying to take control of ebook pricing, and value perception, back from Amazon." And this: "There are two important aspects of this that will play out later. One is that what the publishers can do to Amazon today, the authors can do to the publishers tomorrow. If the publishers could sell the ebooks of big books successfully from their sites, then the big authors could also sell them directly without a publisher. The other is that this is a 'last gasp' of a 'static product' publishing economy. Big moneymakers ten years from now won’t often come from just selling the same content over and over again, but will more often come from content that triggers a more extended interaction. The most future-oriented thinkers are already past this battle, although there’s still a lot of fighting left to be done."
    - PM
  2. December 15, 2009 10:40 AM EST
    Random House's Retroactive Rights Grab, an alert from the Authors Guild, explains that not only is Random House trying retroactively to grab rights it didn't pay for in its original contracts on backlist titles, but that publishers in general are lowballing payments to authors for these rates. Says the AG: "It's regrettable and unhelpful that Random House has chosen to try to intimidate authors and agents over these old book contracts. With such a weak legal hand, it would be well advised to stick to its strength -- the advantages that its marketing muscle can provide owners of e-book rights. It should also start offering a fair royalty for those rights. Authors and publishers have traditionally split the proceeds from book sales. Most sublicenses, for example, provide for a 50/50 split of proceeds, and the standard trade book royalty of 15% of the hardcover retail price, back in the days that industry standard was established, represented about 50% of the net proceeds of the sale of the book. We're confident that the current practice of paying 25% of net on e-books will not, in the long run, prevail. Savvy agents are well aware of this. The only reason e-book royalty rates are so low right now is that so little attention has been paid to them: sales were simply too low to scrap over. That's beginning to change. If you have an old book contract in which you haven't granted e-book rights, patience is likely to pay off. The e-book industry is still young -- there's no need to jump in. And we strongly suspect e-royalty rates are at a low-water mark."
    - PM
  3. December 17, 2009 10:28 AM EST
    Stephen Covey's digital rights deal with Amazon startles New York publishers writes Ed Pikington, in NY, for the Guardian UK. "Online editions seen as threat to backlist cash cow," reads the subtitle. Covey, author of two major backlist titles, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Principle Centered Leadership bypassed his principal publisher, Simon & Schuster, who is not taking as visibly strong a stance as Random House in fighting for this turf. In Britain, writes Pilkington, "publishers broadly accept that they do not have the rights to the ebook editions of older titles, and authors accept that they should avoid offering ebooks to other publishers." Amazon dominates the e-book market with its e-book reader,, the Kindle, but Apple will introduce the competitive Apple Tablet in the spring. Pilkington cites Paul Aiken, head of the Authors Guild, as saying that "most ebook deals award authors 25% of royalties, which, given the lower costs of publishing digitally, is only about a half of the accepted rate in print books." (And we know that they're actually trying to offer LESS than 25 percent, so between Amazon trying to lower prices to bargain basement levels, and authors demanding their truly fair share, publishers are facing a true dilemma. Authors with clout are leading the right for authors with less bargaining power. Publishers: don't forget who provides your product.)
    Meanwhile, Jason Boog on eBooknewser reports that Scribd Strikes Deal with John Wiley and Sons, adding that "200,000 books are published on Scribd annually, and the company thinks the figure will quadruple in 2010." He also cites a Bowker report that U.S. book production declined 3 percent in 2008, while "on demand" publishing more than doubled. Thanks to Sue Russell for these links.
    - PM