Posts Tagged ‘Copyright’


by Chaz Bufe, publisher See Sharp Press

Yesterday, a friend told me she was about to sign a contract with a small publisher, who had approached her about writing a book for a professional market. I said, “Let me take a look at the contract.” She showed it to me, and my jaw almost hit the floor when I saw the clauses on royalties: they assigned her 10% of “net” for both physical book and e-book sales. That set me on the road to this post.

There are a lot of potential problems in book publishing contracts of which authors are blissfully unaware. In the flush of excitement over having their books published, authors routinely give away the store.

Here are several potential problem areas and outright traps often found in publishing contracts:

1) Legitimate publishers will never ask authors for money. In legitimate publishing, publishers pay authors, first in the form of an advance on royalties, after which, once the advance is worked off, in the form of royalty payments.

In a grey area, a few small publishers will ask authors to engage in “co-publishing,” where they split the costs of publication, but this is usually the case only with esoteric books that simply won’t be commercially viable (books on obscure 19th-century political movements, for instance). In most such cases,  authors should consider self-publishing unless the purpose of the book is to “spread the word” (whatever it might be) or to get a book publishing credit, in which case a co-publishing deal does make sense.

2) Authors should never assign their copyrights to publishers. Some unscrupulous publishers will specify in their contracts that authors give them their copyrights as a condition of publication. This is totally unacceptable. In such cases, authors should demand that the clause in question be struck from the contract and that they retain copyright. (Such a clause is also a tipoff that authors should look over the rest of the contract very carefully.) If a publisher insists on your assigning them the copyright, walk away from the deal.

As an example of what can go wrong when authors fall into this trap, one need look no further than the sad tale of William Powell, compiler of the original Anarchist Cookbook. Powell compiled this abomination (a collection of bomb- and drug-making “recipes” combined with near-incoherent, very misleading comments about anarchism and other political matters) as a 19-year-old kid, and he naively signed a contract giving the publisher, Lyle Stuart, the copyright. Years later, Powell had wised up to some extent and requested that Stuart withdraw the book. Stuart, who was making money from the book, refused. After Stuart was sued by developer Steve Winn for libel and forced into bankruptcy, his publishing house’s assets were auctioned off, including the “cookbook” copyright. As a result, Powell’s discreditable book is still in print and still an embarrassment to him, despite both his private and public repudiation of it.

(One note here is that contracts give the publisher exclusive rights to publish and sell a book in [a] specified region[s]. This is not the same as the publisher owning the copyright.)

3) Royalties for physical books should always be based on cover (retail) price, not “net.” As a wise soul once said, only slightly overstating the matter, “There is no such thing as ‘net.'” Unless “net” is very strictly defined in the contract, publishers can deduct such things as publicity/promotion expenses for a book and even a portion of their rent and office expenses in addition to printing and shipping costs before arriving at “net.”

Publishers who offer “net” royalty payments routinely start them at 10% of “net.” That sounds great unless you understand the economics of book publishing. Here’s what 10% of “net” translates to, even in cases where “net” is carefully specified and limited to the cost of printing and shipping books.

Small publishers, as a necessity, use distributors, who do such things as dealing with Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the independent stores, the wholesalers and jobbers, etc., and who also send out thousands of catalogs annually to libraries and bookstores. They also can be of significant help with publicity resources and “special sales” to nonbooktrade accounts. For these services, distributors take between 25% and 30% of sales income from the publishers. On average, distributors get about 50% of cover price for books sold. So, once their cut is taken out, the publisher gets roughly 35% to 37% of cover price for every book sold, before returns. Taking returns into account (some of which are shopworn or otherwise damaged), publishers end up (if fortunate) with roughly 30% to 33% of cover price for every book sold.

That sounds good until you realize that printing costs normally run to 12% to 15% of cover price for the limited runs small publishers routinely do. Deduct that cost alone, and “net” drops to about 20% of cover price. So, royalties of 10% of “net,” with no further deductions from “net,”  translate to 2% of cover price. This percentage can be a little higher in cases where publishers do a lot of direct-to-customer sales, but it’ll still be very low.

In contrast, most publishers base royalties on cover price. For trade paperbacks, royalties normally start at 6% or 7% of cover price and rise, based on number of copies sold, to 10%. For hardbacks, royalties normally start at 10% of cover price and rise, again based on copies sold, to 15%.

Contrast this with the effective 2% royalties provided by “net” contracts.

Unless you have no other options, do not sign a contract with royalties based on “net.” If you have no other choice, insist that “net” be defined very closely, and push for 20% of net; you won’t get it, but you might get 15%, which is still bad, but better than 10%.

4) Royalties should be 50% of monies received (“gross”) by the publisher for e-book sales. The reason e-book royalties should be much higher than royalties for physical books is that e-books are very cheap and easy to produce, and that the publisher runs virtually no additional risks and has virtually no additional costs with such “publishing.” Almost all of their considerable risks and costs are incurred in the publishing of physical copies. There are the up-front costs of editing, cover and interior design, catalog listings, and printing and shipping, plus some costs for pre-publication publicity and promotional work; and there are post-publication costs incurred through doing more publicity and promotion. (Then, consider that most books don’t make money for publishers. The ones that do make money pay for the ones that don’t.)

In contrast, the additional costs of producing e-books are insignificant: the cost of an ISBN (international standard book number) and the cost of e-book conversion from the physical book’s interior PDF (about 50 cents to a dollar a page).

If a contract specifies e-book royalties much under 50% of gross, something is seriously wrong. And if a contract specifies royalties of 10% or 15% of “net” for e-book sales, the publisher is either ignorant of normal royalty structures or is trying to screw you.

5) Rights should revert to authors if a book is out of print for more than two years. There should be a “reversion of rights” clause in any contract specifying that publishing rights will revert to the author if a book is out of print for a certain length of time. The longest this should be is two years, and one year or 18 months is better. If there is no reversion of rights clause, insist on one, and if there is one and the period exceeds two years, ask that it be specified as one year, then compromise. As well, the reversion of rights clause should specify that it applies to physical books, not e-books, which the publisher can keep “in print” forever at no cost.

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These are only the problems that immediately come to mind. There are others, though these are the most common and the most serious.


The great big beautiful tomorrow, by Cory Doctorow front cover(The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, by Cory Doctorow. Oakland, PM Press, 2011, 136 pp., $12.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Charles Stross recently put up a post titled “On the lack of cultural estrangement in SF,” in which he decries the tendency of some sci-fi writers to place far-future stories in cultural settings indistinguishable from the present. (The two authors he cites as examples of this tendency are two that I’ve stopped reading precisely because of this.) Such use of mundane settings short changes the reader. One way mundane settings do this is that they’re simply implausible–just think about the changes in the condition and status of women and gay people over the last few decades, and the near-elimination of chattel slavery less than 150 years ago. The future will be different–and not just in terms of technology. Also, in any sci-fi story there will be at least one “gimme,” at least one implausibility such as faster-than-light travel. Wasting a “gimme” on use of the cultural present as backdrop (without critiquing it) is not only lazy, but it’s a means of lulling the reader to sleep; it’s a way to avoid challenging the reader.

The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow certainly doesn’t suffer from this problem. It’s not even set that far in the future–it seems to be set 50 to 100 years from now–but the society it portrays is almost unrecognizable. It’s a future transformed by runaway technological change and political fanaticism, a future in which primitivist zealots have repurposed “wumpusses”–machines designed to recycle toxic waste and abandoned industrial sites into healthy soil–to destroy cities, and preservationists (essentially keeping theme parks) have to resort to armed force to protect the remnants of the industrial past.

The protagonist of this story is Jimmy Yensid (reverse the spelling), a young “transhuman” boy, the son of a preservationist, who has been genetically altered to live almost forever, but whose alterations have the unfortunate side effect of keeping him in early adolescence for decades. Doctorow’s portrayal of Jimmy’s growing irritation over this is poignant. The tale traces Jimmy’s growing inner torment as he “progresses”  from one externally produced disaster to another; its technological and social oddities include dog brains in bottles, “the pack,”  controlling robot remotes, and a “wirehead” cult whose members have cranial implants that keep them in constant empathic contact with each other.

All this provides a rich background for what could be a several-hundred-page novel. Which is what makes The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow so frustrating. The novella ends before Doctorow has really explored the fascinating world he’s created. Worse, while the novella does conclude, the conclusion could have come several dozen pages prior to where it does without losing much if anything; and, late in the story, Doctorow introduces a strange, new, inadequately explained element to bring the story to a close–in other words, it leaves loose ends.

The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow could be a fine novel. As is, it’s a much-too short-novella. Let’s hope that Doctorow eventually decides to turn it into the novel it deserves to be.

The book also contains a slightly revised version of Doctorow’s address to the 2010 World Science Fiction Convention. Its topic is the evil and stupidity of DRM (Digital Rights Management), which is the placement of encryption software code in e-books. This was originally presented as an anti-piracy measure, but as Doctorow points out, this cannot work, and never has: if someone with any technical skill wants to “crack” a book (CD, DVD, whatever), they can do it, and then distribute  it all over the ‘net within hours. As Doctorow and others (notably Charlie Stross), have pointed out, all that DRM does is restrict end users (people who buy e-books) to particular e-readers. You cannot, for instance read a Kindle file on an iPad. And since Amazon sells over 50% of e-books and treats publishers as a “cheetah” would “a wounded gazelle” (to use Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s words), publishers who employ DRM are cutting their own throats–they’re tying their readers to Amazon.

Fortunately, the trend in recent years has been toward DRM-free e-books. TOR was the first major sci-fi publisher to do this. Others who issue DRM-free e-books include smaller publishers such as  PM Press and See Sharp Press. And this trend is gaining steam. This will ultimately bring greater flexcibility (in transferring files, in lending e-books) to e-book buyers, and will also tend to give them greater choice in e-book retailers.

Finally, in Terry Bisson’s interview with Doctorow which concludes the book, Doctorow makes a useful and unusual writing suggestion: write every day until you’ve reached a prescribed number of words,  and stop in the middle of a sentence, so that it will be  easy to get started again the following day. That makes sense, but who wants to stop when you’re on a roll?

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Zeke Teflon is the  author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.

Free Radicals front cover