I spend my days steeped in rights, royalties and the contracts that govern them, and this much is clear: publishers must plan new approaches to rights or risk future viability. Regardless of how the courts or the Justice Department treat the Google Book Settlement, the Book Rights Registry (BRR) will exist in some form; the industry needs it for the widest possible dissemination of content. A registry combined with clear and streamlined rights agreements would help publishers keep pace with content delivery innovations.

Following a BEA panel on the settlement that my company, MetaComet, hosted, my colleagues and I surveyed some industry leaders on the subject. “We've got to make it easy for people to find who is the appropriate rights holder.... Right now, that is a complexity that is unnecessary in our business,” said Dominique Raccah, publisher and CEO of Sourcebooks Inc. “We want to ensure that authors reach readers in the broadest possible way,” via iPhone apps, music video, “or something we can't envision now.” A registry and simplicity in rights agreements would help accomplish that.

One option to facilitate this: have authors give a publisher all rights to a work, but for a limited time, such as three years. “Because everything moves so fast, it ought to be quite clear in three years if a publisher exploited each right,” Richard Nash, formerly publisher of Soft Skull Press and now a consultant, told me over coffee earlier this month. Nash hopes to implement this idea in a new publishing venture he is working on. He thinks this structure would facilitate business partnerships between authors and publishers, and would provide authors with one partner who orchestrates the entire campaign. It could also benefit agents, because they could spend less time shopping around smaller “chunks” of content.

Will authors and agents stand for such innovation and out-of-the-box thinking? Conversations with the Authors Guild made it clear the challenging environment has made authors more open to new ideas of partnerships. Giving up rights for a shorter duration is “interesting.... I wouldn't rule it out, but the devil is always in the details,” Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, said to my COO recently.

At the very least, authors are much more open to the idea of a business partnership with publishers than in the past. “There used to be much more of an adversarial relationship between author and publisher than there is now,” Aiken said, “probably because... these are challenging times economically, and with the changing technology, authors and publishers are in this together.”

While Raccah loves Nash's idea, she recognizes implementation might be tough, but she has pushed the partnership angle. When a new idea arises—such as an iPhone app—she makes an addendum to the existing contract. Still, an innovation such as the trade-off of rights for duration would be good for publishers and authors, both because of the simplicity and because “it's incumbent on publishers to prove that they are actually” benefiting authors and their works.

Agents also might be open to such innovation, given the changing marketplace. In fact, they might have little choice, according to literary agent Richard Curtis, who owns the publishing company E-Reads. He first schooled me in rights and royalties nearly 10 years ago. “Right now, authors are so desperate that if a publisher asks for all rights, an author will give it,” Curtis said. “Even with powerful agents, 99% of the time, they will just throw in the digital rights, because they have nowhere to go with them.”

Publishers and authors must recognize that content has a limitless array of uses—uses as incalculable today as e-commerce was 15 years ago. There must be a very clear delineation of rights, and the simpler that delineation is, the better. If publishers, agents or authors start breaking out translation rights, serial rights, foreign rights, etc., they make it more difficult to make content accessible, and therefore monetizable, through an organization such as the BRR.

Publishers need to bring authors in on these discussions and educate them on the details, so that they realize the benefits of simplified contracts. In fact, it could be that the best way to accomplish this would be for publishers to work with authors to develop rights standards through an organization like the Book Industry Study Group.

The key to future publishing success will be a change in attitude that simplified contracts and the BRR represent: publishers and authors are business partners and must act as such.

Author Information
Marlin is president of the rights and royalty system provider MetaComet Systems (www.MetaComet.com), which he cofounded in 2000.