Electronic Rights: Publishers Hijack Digital Windfall

Electronic rights in book publishing contracts used to be a 50-50 split at worst. Sometimes the author could get up to 90%. But that was when electronic rights were only a minor part of the income stream.

Digital Windfall

Then along came the windfall provided by the digital age. Instead of sharing it with the authors, publishers decided they wanted it all. Here’s an example of what happened:

Around the turn of the millennium, netLibrary became the first ebook publisher of any consequence when they began negotiating with academic publishers to scan back copies of their catalogs to turn into exact digital reproductions. The cost to publishers to participate was two books:

  • one for netLibrary to tear apart and scan
  • one for netLibrary to display in their hard-copy library of print books they had turned into ebooks so they could show that the print and electronic versions looked the same.

Participating publishers then turned around and offered their authors “appendices” to their contracts because “your contract doesn’t have a clause for ebooks.” In those appendices, they offered their authors 10% of net profits (15% if they were nice) for books sold by netLibrary.

Deliberately Deceptive

They were deliberately deceptive. Contracts didn’t have ebook clauses but they did indeed have clauses for electronic rights, and what can be more electronic than an ebook, which stands for electronic book?

“But ebooks aren’t covered under e-rights,” publishers conspired. “They’re merely an extension of print rights.” Writers’ groups were slow in organizing around this blatant theft; likely no more than a handful of authors held out for what they deserved.

Electronic Rights Today

Today, new contracts routinely offer authors 10 to 15% net for ebook rights. Fight for at least 50%. This fight should not be seen as lost — but winning it will be a long uphill struggle. And, remember, you can say no to a bad contract and be your own publisher.

Leverage your power to walk.

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This piece was adapted from Ken Wachsberger’s You’ve Got the Time: How to Write and Publish That Book in You. Ken’s other books may be found here and here. For book coaching and editing help, or to invite Ken to speak at your meeting, email Ken at [email protected].

Do your members need to understand book contracts? Contact Ken at [email protected].

Schedule your complimentary 30-minute coaching and editing session now.

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