Saturday, November 22, 2008

Is the University of Minnesota Press's Backlist Initiative Good For Authors?

According to Publisher's Weekly (November 21, 2008), "The University of Minnesota Press has announced a new initiative to reissue virtually every book published by the press since its founding in 1925. The project, Minnesota Archive Editions, was unofficially launched six months ago in partnership with, Google, and BookMobile, a short-run printing company specializing in POD and bound galleys."

At first glance this seems good for authors, especially academicians whose work might otherwise be unavailable except through library loans once it goes out of print. But the Authors Guild has long pointed out that "out of print" serves a contractual purpose for authors as well as publishers. Here, in the Guild's own words, is its interesting point on this subject (italics mean a quote from the Guild's website):

Your publisher should only have the exclusive rights to your work while it is actively marketing and selling your book, i.e., while your book is "in print." An out-of-print clause will allow you to terminate the contract and regain all rights granted to your publisher after the book stops earning money.

It is crucial to actually define the print status of your book in the contract. Stipulate that your work is in print only when copies are available for sale in the United States in an English language hardcover or paperback edition issued by the publisher and listed in its catalog. Otherwise, your book should be considered out-of-print and all rights should revert to you.

Negotiation tips:

Don't allow the existence of electronic and print-on-demand editions to render your book in print. Alternatively, establish a floor above which a certain amount of royalties must be earned or copies must be sold during each accounting period for your book to be considered in print. Once sales or earnings fall below this floor, your book should be deemed out-of-print and rights should revert to you.

Stipulate that as soon as your book is out-of-print all rights will automatically revert to you regardless of whether your book has earned out the advance.

So do I agree with the Authors Guild on this one, or the University of Minnesota Press? Dear reader, I'm torn. I can think of valid arguments pro and con. It's true that a publisher can lock up your book forever in electronic form, spitting out a copy every two years and never giving you the rights back. But does that matter in the case of academic work for a by-definition small audience? Isn't it only a problem if one can earn money on the book by republishing it elsewhere? (And yes, many books gain new life this way...)

I'm open to arguments pro and con from anyone who wants to weigh in.

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