Most of us in publishing spend little time thinking about the contracts with authors which form the basis of our stock in trade.

Many publishers use a standard contract, adding any peculiar issues as additional clauses at the end. Big trade books will tend to have contracts negotiated clause by clause by publisher and agent. These will usually cover only a license to publish — in various specified editions. A university press on the other hand may “buy” the copyright from the author in return for royalty payments or a fee. In crude terms this just reflects the relative value of a bestselling novel and an academic monograph. Effectively it means that when the book goes out of print, publishing rights will probably revert to the author in the trade world, while the copyright remains with the academic publisher. An academic publisher will rarely refuse to revert copyright upon being asked though. The arrival of print-on-demand production has affected this part of the contract: if the book never becomes unavailable, rights need never revert. Agents are no doubt tying reversion to a rate of sale now.

You should remember (because we all know this don’t we) that you should always read your contract and would be wise to get legal advice on it. You never know when your book is going to go viral, so think about rights you may be casually giving up. What looks anodyne today may turn out to be a big pain tomorrow. Hergé apparently assigned publishing rights to his work to his publisher in 1942, and this has cast into doubt millions of dollars-worth of merchandising rights. The Digital Reader has the story. As Tintin was first created in 1929, Hergé (1907-83) doesn’t have the excuse that he was a young writer unaware of future demand for his works. Maybe he needed to raise cash in a hurry.

There’s a great deal of aggro in the self-publishing/indie community about the iniquity of publishers and their rapacious contracts. But every deal is a negotiation, and it’s up to authors to keep negotiating if they are unhappy with some of the terms. Sure the power balance favors the publisher: all the more reason to bargain hard. Publishers really have no incentive to be so hard-nosed that they alienate every one of their authors. After all, at the end of the day there are always other publishers, including potentially yourself. Any publisher’s editor will be expected to sign a certain number of books each year: they, as individuals, cannot afford to allow every negotiation to end in acrimony. Sure they’ll push for the most favorable deal they can get: so should the author.

The Authors Guild currently has an initiative under way aimed at revising several of the boilerplate clauses that publishers typically import into their contracts. It stands to reason that standard contracts need to be revised from time to time as new technologies and distribution options alter the shape of our business. Publishers can I think be relied on eventually to respond to market forces, and change clauses in their standard contract which no longer make sense. Much of the frustration in the indie community stems, I think, from the slow pace of change. This may not be desirable, but is surely understandable, especially in cases where the clause needing change is one which benefits the publisher! What looks like rapaciousness is all too often laziness and incompetence. Still, why should an aggrieved author feel better about laziness than greed?