18 May 2007

Simon Says "I pwn you"

The bookish buzz today is about the Author’s Guild press release that was issued yesterday by Paul Akien regarding the changes that Simon & Schuster made to their boilerplate contract for authors. Apparently the new language “weds” a particular book to the publisher forever and always. The “alert” states that:

"The new contract would allow Simon & Schuster to consider a book in print, and under its exclusive control, so long as it's available in any form, including through its own in-house database -- even if no copies are available to be ordered by traditional bookstores. With the new contract language, the publisher would be able stop printing a book and prevent the author from publishing it with any other house."

Needless to say, this kind of contract benefits only one party involved, and that’s Simon & Schuster. A traditional contract reverts the rights to the book back to the author after a specified period of time or after the book has been declared “out of print.” This allows the author to republish the book with another publisher, post it online, provide it as a POD book, or crumple the remainders in a ball and heat their home. The point is, the author has the right to do with their work what they want. But Simon & Schuster has suddenly decided that they want authors playing their game and their game only. Till death do you part.

In that same alert, the Authors Guild cautioned members to consider their options carefully:

“1. Remember that if you sign a contract with Simon & Schuster that includes this clause, they'll say you're wed to them. Your book will live and die with this particular conglomerate.
2. Ask your agent to explore other options. Other publishers are not seeking an irrevocable grant of rights.
3. If you have a manuscript that may be auctioned, consider asking your agent to exclude Simon & Schuster imprints unless they agree before the auction to use industry standard terms.”

The Author’s Guild alert also noted that other houses have not followed suit, and whether or not that happens could bring about some serious changes in the publishing world, and for publications across the board. I don’t think it would be out of the realm of possibility for writers to reject major publishing houses in lieu of POD, and vanity presses. Granted, it’s unlikely that all writers would seek to do this, but when restrictions and stringent guidelines are thrust upon artists, they tend to find alternate means of disseminating their work to the public. With Simon & Schuster’s new boilerplate contract, artists give birth to a work of art only to give it up forever. They can visit it in the bookstores (ideally), or even in the musty tomes of a warehouse when that publisher decides the book is no longer viable. Even if you wanted to rescue your work from obscurity, you couldn’t. They pwned* you when you signed the contract.

As it stands, Simon & Schuster is the only house including this kind of language. But critical changes like this always lead to one or two different outcomes. Either the rest of the industry will follow suit and strangle the creative productivity and output of authors who want (and with good reason, I feel) some control over their creative children, or the rest of the houses will step far, far away from Simon & Schuster, leaving them with the choice of either going back to the traditional contractual agreements, or slowly suffocating themselves. As this is a business, I think it’s a toss up. Simon & Schuster wants to make more money (or the potential for more money in the future) by clinging to the rights ad infinitum, but if the industry turns their back, they’ll be forced to revert their contracts. Then again, if all the houses see the potential that Simon & Schuster does, then it may become standard before we can even blink.

By all means, feedback on this topic is welcome, and encouraged—-particularly people who are more in daily contact with book contracts than I. For more on this issue, please see:

Simon & Schuster Appears to Be Seeking a Permanent Stake in Authors' Copyrights

Publishers Lunch Deluxe: The New Turf War

Publishers Weekly: Agents Angered by S&S "Rights Grab"

~D.M. Papuga

* Pwn, or Pwned, are not typos. Geeks like me will understand instantly, those who do not can read that as "owned." For more see the entry on wikipedia here**.

** The term was one of 16 to appear on the 2006 "List of Words and Phrases Banished from the Queen's English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness." I don't know If that pleases me, or makes me want to cry.

1 Comment:

Alex Landefeld said...

Interesting. Listening to This Week in Tech (http://www.twit.tv/TWiT) the guys were talking about how publishers should make available non-book forms of books, for those people who would want them, as the general public would still continue to buy the paper version. S&S' take on publishers ownership is an interesting twist on what you describe as the traditional author/publisher relationship - perhaps this'll generate in the publishing world the same uproar that Microsoft initiated when they changed business software licensing from annually renewable contracts to a rather draconian subscription-style contract. Microsoft backed down several times. S&S is clearly attempting to be creative in terms of their own bottom line...perhaps they just didn't think long enough about where the fuel for that bottom line really comes from.