Being a spokesperson for a major media company is probably always a difficult job, but last week, at Simon & Schuster, I bet it was a nightmare. Not only was the publisher bombarded with questions and comments regarding alleged inaccuracies in former president Jimmy Carter's Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, but corporate machers were called upon to explain, defend and assuage strong feelings about the publisher's new policy on out-of-print books and print on demand.
The policy flap began with a May 17 press release from the Authors Guild, decrying what it called S&S's “electronic warehousing of rights,” which would effectively prevent an author from getting rights to his work back, even if said work had stopped selling in any significant number. Next came a statement from S&S that, unwisely, accused the guild of “overreacting.” (Has none of these people had a domestic argument and learned that them's fightin' words?) Many statements ensued. The policy should be revoked, most agents said; at the very least, they should negotiate—hard—to have the offending clauses removed. (In at least one case, an agent threatened to pull an agreed-upon project and resell it to an underbidder, should the contract not be changed. It was.) No question: this was the most heated discussion in Book Land since Google.
But as often happens in any creative business, emotions are running higher than practical concerns. Both agents and publishers admit, for example, that the number of books whose rights are returned to the author and then resold to anybody's significant profit is small, very small. “Books go out of print for a reason,” one said. “This affects only the longest, thinnest part of the long tail,” said another. Stephen King and Frank McCourt (both S&S authors), for example, go out of print exactly never, and so the clause would be moot—if, in fact, their publishers even dared antagonize their powerful agents by trying to slip it in in the first place. But that's even worse, some agents say; publishing is devolving into a multi-tiered system in which powerful authors are protected, and the little guys get screwed.
The fact remains that in 99% of cases, POD rights don't amount to much, no matter who has them. (It's also true that as technology and delivery systems change, so may change POD opportunities.) But that doesn't mean agents should roll over and accept the new terms. Even if the amount of money to be made over time is very small—even if it is, collectively, more significant for a big-business publisher than for each of its out-of-print authors individually—why make such a fuss? The authors who have books go out of print are the very ones who need whatever extra scratch they can turn their unsold books into. Besides, the high road here comes cheap: acknowledging the actual creators of “content” might help correct the widely held impression that today's publishers couldn't care less about them.
Whether, or how often, S&S will excise its new boilerplate remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: other major houses, which have surely been considering the same kind of move, will hang back before “updating” their standard contract along the S&S lines. For them, this maneuver has been a canary in the coal mine of publishing opinion—and it's looking none too hospitable down there.
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