“Every time you think you’ve been screwed by publishers in every possible way,
you meet one who has read the Kama Sutra.”
— Cathy Crimmins (1955-2009)
Reversion—the process by which all licensed rights are returned by the publisher to the copyrightholding
author, thus terminating their mutual contract—used to be a straightforward process in most instances.
Unless you were a bestseller, or at least a rising star, a book that had been out of print long enough
for the reversion clause to be applicable was usually a book that the publisher perceived to be commercially
unviable (translation: worthless). And so reversion was granted when applied for. Or, when dealing with publishers
that didn’t bother to answer their mail, automatic reversion could eventually be declared under the
conditions specified in the reversion clause.
Then along came e-publishing, and the whole world of backlist books changed drastically in a short time.
Thanks to very low production and distribution costs, a book previously considered worthless as a reprint
commodity was now deemed potentially profitable as an e-book.
This has led to a lot of complicated problems for writers, many of them still unresolved—such as publishers
claiming that the phrase “in book form” in old contracts really means “e-books,” even if digital rights are
not specified (or even alluded to) anywhere in the agreement. Various publishers are suspected of engaging in
(to put it euphemistically) creative accounting practices in order to escape paying the e-royalty rates that
were stipulated in contracts that were signed back before a lower rate became “industry standard” (and, indeed,
writers alleging such practices have recently filed a class action lawsuit against Harlequin). Some publishers
simply claim that they “own” e-rights to a title and count on the agent and/or author being too dimwitted
to read the contract and point out how erroneous that claim is. And so on.
I know what you’re thinking: “But why don’t publishers just try to license digital rights to these old works
in a reasonable and businesslike manner, such as proposing mutually attractive terms to writers and then
abiding by the results of those negotiations?”
Oh, good God, man, are you kidding? That would just be INSANE!
Meanwhile, this unexpected change in the perceived market value of old, out-of-print books has also created
big changes and challenges in the reversion process—which used to be a fairly sleepy, run-of-the-mill
matter in most cases. These days, some publishers seem to be resorting to everything short of physical
threats in order to forestall reversion and retain control of old titles.
For example, a publisher contacted a writer I know shortly before the reversion period was due to expire
on some of this popular author’s long out-of-print titles—books for which only print rights had ever
been licensed. The publisher wanted this writer to withdraw the reversion request, on the basis of plans that
the house proposed for a long-term reissue program starting after the reversion period. For various understandable
reasons, the author declined to comply, and the reversion request remained in effect.
In order to keep those rights—print rights only—the publisher republished all those old books, which
had been out-of-print for years, within a couple of weeks (yes, really) of the author’s decision to proceed with
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