Thursday, December 22, 2011

Lesson 12: Requiem

You hope your book will have a long life, but few stories are immortal. Yours might be another Odyssey (as in the one written by Homer), but it's more likely to be one of the tidal wave of books that go out of print every year. Chances are, your manuscript will eventually die.

And your contract contains its funeral instructions.

Not that the contract is trying to hasten the book's demise. Your publisher wants it to live a long, healthy life.

But even a book should be prepared for death, and the "out-of-print" or "reversion" clause tells the publisher when to pull the plug.

It used to be a lot easier to know when a book was deceased. If the publisher decided that it couldn't sell enough copies to cover the cost of another print run, it would simply refuse to print more. The refusal was the book's death certificate.

Today, with e-books and print on demand, the publisher may have the ability to print and sell single copies without losing money. So books with sales that would formerly have put them out of print may now be kept alive by life support. But that may not be what you want. It's better to have a clause that says the book is out of print (for purposes of the contract) using more objective measures. Here are some examples:
  • The book is out of print when the publisher has sold less than __ books of any type (e-book, print on demand, mass market paperback, trade paperback, hardback) over the past __ months;
  • The book is out of print when the contract has generated less than $__ in royalties over the past __ months [or during the last accounting period];
  • The book is in print only while copies of an English-language print edition are readily available and offered for sale in the U.S. through regular channels and listed in the publisher's catalog.
Since some authors want to pull the plug sooner than others do, I'm not going to fill in the blanks. But your contract should.

So why would you ever want to pull the plug? As mentioned in my March 24, 2011 post, the contract rents certain of your copyright rights to the publisher. While the contract is in effect, you can't use those rights yourself. So if sales are very slow and you think you can sell the book to a different publisher or do better on your own, you want the lease to terminate so you get your rights back.

Unless it is a work for hire, make sure that the contract states that the rights revert to you if the contract terminates under the out-of-print clause or for any other reason. The contract should also require the publisher to notify you when the book goes out of print. Even better is a provision that requires the publisher to also notify you when the book's vital statistics indicate that it is close to death.

The contract may terminate for other reasons, such as the publishing company's bankruptcy. The author should receive the same reversion rights as it would if the book were out of print. This is also true if the publisher wants to abort the manuscript before it is published. Ideally, the contract will require the publisher to publish the book within a specified period after receiving an acceptable manuscript and will provide for the rights to revert to you if the publisher misses its deadline.

Authors shouldn’t have to repay unearned advances if the book is out of print, the publisher misses its deadline, or the reasons for the termination are beyond your control. So make sure that's what your contract says.

Regardless of the cause of your book's demise, you want the right to purchase any remaining copies from the publisher at a deep discount. And the best provision will also allow you to purchase--at cost--any existing electronic files, plates, films, and artwork.

Why are these provisions so important?

Because the birth of your publishing contract is the best time to plan for the death of your book.

Kathryn Page Camp

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Kathryn, you share a feast of info here of which all writers should be aware, especially in these complicated days of electronic growth and change.