Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Digital Spin on Reverting Rights

I read Oliver Brice’s opinion column in the Bookseller with great interest. Here was a legal man talking on the subject of rights in the digital world. I expected clarity and direction but got little and in my opinion his previous employment at Macmillan had may have swayed his judgement.

Publishing is a risk orientated business where the rights acquired may not earn out for a host of reasons and many of these are nothing to do with the content itself. Some are fortunate and make the cut and some a very reasonable return. To argue that the development of digital repositories should justify holding onto rights for their full term is at best naive and at worst very misleading and mischievous. We need to separate out the initial punt of the work and whether its return from whether it makes the backlist and leads to further works being acquired by the publisher.

The fact that we now have print on demand is not part of the issue as it is misleading. The investment in POD is a one time hit based on a set up cost and is incurred at the likes of LSI, Anthony Rowe and Booksurge. This is where the digital file is held, processed. The fact that publisher often used this as a short print run mechanism and not true on demand fulfilment is also an issue to consider. But the publisher’s digital repository investments are not or need not be part of this equation.

Let’s return to the thorny question of rights reversals which is what is at the heart of this issue. If the publisher has tried to produce, market and earn out but failed why on earth should they now be allowed to ‘keep it in print’ by making it available by POD? Will it sell any more and suddenly generate huge wedges of money – I doubt it. Will it generate the odd sale – probably but this will be as unpredictable as the British weather. The fact that the author can’t try POD themselves at their cost and self republish is a mystery.

Works have their day and die, sometimes like fashion they may lucky and make come back, but for many they merely fade away to be found years later on dusty second hand and antiquarian shelves. Giving publishers the right to retain rights for full term, irrespective of performance, investment and noting that list transfers hands as often as premiership footballers transfer clubs is little comfort for the one person who creates the property – the author.

The cynic could argue that this digital changes the rules ‘ its ours forever’ attitude is merely to retain the publisher position within the value chain. In fact the greatest threat in digitisation is potentially to publishers and the days when authors and readers can connect more effectively is drawing nearer by the day.