This Week in Publishing 5/18/07

by | May 18, 2007 | Uncategorized | 22 comments

BIG week in publishing.

First, some background information. Typically in publishing contracts, when an author’s work goes out of print there is a mechanism in place for the author to ask for those rights back so they can try and place the rights elsewhere. Which makes a lot of sense. If a publisher isn’t actively selling your book, the author should have the right to find someone who will sell the book. Even if it’s just that mom and pop publisher on your block with the nice cat.

Well. Things have gotten a bit more gray areaish in the era of ebooks and print on demand. Whereas before a publisher really had to be actively selling and printing your book, the new technology makes it much easier to technically keep a work “in print” even if it isn’t really being actively sold — it could theoretically just be stashed on a website somewhere and the publisher has the rights to your book in perpetuity. In response to the new technology, agents negotiated sales or royalty thresholds to define “in print” — if a publisher is not actively selling your book, the author can get those rights back to find someone who will. Copacetic right?

Actually, no. Simon & Schuster recently decided to change their boilerplate to eliminate the out of print threshold so that basically POD and/or e-book technology would keep a book under S&S’s control, well, pretty much as long as the copyright is in effect. Let’s just say robots will take over the world and install a toaster as king before you’d get those rights back.

It’s SO on.

The Authors Guild fired back with a rather awesome letter, Kristin Nelson used an even awesomer Death Star metaphor in her response, and even the New York Times is all over this one.

According to GalleyCat, S&S spokesman Adam Rothberg called The Authors Guild’s response an “overreaction.”

Oh, it’s just been broughten.

Stay tuned.

In other publishing news (yes, there actually is some), GalleyCat discovered some tantalizing clues about the next Oprah pick, and promptly started the guessing game. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: guess the Oprah pick. Your clue: it’s a Picador paperback. Michael Chabon denies it’s KAVALIER AND CLAY. My guess is Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD, mostly because it’s super amazing and incredible. But I swear I have no inside info. What’s your best guess?

Over at Bookends LLC, Jessica Faust, who in my humble opinion provides some of the very best writing/agent advice on all of the internets, is doing query critiques. Best be checking that out.

And finally, BEA is coming up soon, and Shelf Awareness is all over the most important issue that faces the thousands of people who will be attending: where to find the best bagels. I would have to agree with Robin K. Blum’s recommendation of Bagels On The Park on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens. This place was literally on my block when I lived in Brooklyn, and I’ve never had better. Oh to be young again and to eat amazing bagels on the weekend!!! Where hath the wonders of my youth gone?? (I know, I’m still young, but still.)

Have a great weekend!


  1. Anonymous

    Nathan, thanks for tieing POD print technology with this news from Simon&Schuster.

    Does that mean traditional publishers plan on selling POD produced books as if they were regular offset books?

    Digital print-on-demand has been associated with subsidy,vanity presses, smaller and self-publishers. And niche or non-mainstream (read low sales) content, and lower production values:lower resolution cover images and gray-scales,etc.

    So, S&S plans on avoiding the risks and problems of large print run issues by selling POD books? Really?

    Rowena Wright
    Author of A Loop in Time, bk. one of the Polis Series

  2. Nathan Bransford


    Thanks for the good questions. In the context of this situation, POD refers to the technology — the ability to quickly print copies on demand should a publisher receive some orders. While POD is something that is associated with vanity presses, it also can be used by mainstream publishers to ostensibly keep a work in print even though they’re just printing a few copies and not actively selling.

    Hope that clears it up.

  3. Jillian

    I was hoping you would comment on the S&S thing; thank you.

    I will refrain from slapping you for your “oh to be young again” comment.

  4. CMonster

    How does this affect agents? I mean, would agents benefit from this at all, or would they all be in their author’s corner?

    I suddenly feel like I have some sort of literary knighthood at my disposal. Well, if I can prove I’m a Princess of the Printed Word, anyway.

  5. alternatefish

    I have basically the same question as cmonster, from a couple different angles…

    Does this mean agents are going to be less likely to sign their authors to S&S? Or will this not really matter since it’s S&S and they’re all powerful and stuff? Would it be possible for you (agents) to negotiate this out of a contract, or now that S&S has said it, is it there for good?

    if any questions occur to you that I have not asked, please feel free to answer those as well. 🙂


  6. Nathan Bransford

    cmonster and alternatefish-

    My opinion is the same as the Authors Guild’s. It’s not good for authors (and thus for agents), and we are opposed to this being in contracts. It could definitely affect some deals, and it will be interesting to see how this shakes out.

  7. Jennifer McK

    I’m a big “Noah’s Bagels” fan. Does that make me a Philistine?
    I’m new enough in this business that I’m confused by all the publishing rights.
    I do know the newest “twist” in epublishing is to have an author sign a contract for a manuscript and the “next work of fiction”. Then when the “next work” is contracted, they sign for the NEXT work.
    Does that make sense? Many are calling it a “lifetime” contract. It didn’t work and authors bolted. When I got my first contracts, I was terrified. I read it to another writer friend and peppered her with questions.
    I’m wondering if this is a good move on the part of publishers. It seems to have opened a can of worms they don’t want to mess with.

  8. L.C.McCabe


    So does this new line in a contract mean that if a bookstore orders a copy of a book that is no longer in stock with Ingram that somehow Simon and Schuster will print a copy?

    Or does the customer have to go home and order a copy online from Amazon or another etailer to generate the POD machine from S&S to belch forth a copy?

    I’m wondering because I used to work at a B&N superstore in the mid-nineties prior to the rise of the internet and Amazon. I was in charge of the special orders program in our store which meant that if our distributors (Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Pacific Pipeline, Book People, PGW) didn’t have the books in stock that I was tasked with calling the publishers directly to see if the book could be ordered.

    I saw how quickly mass markets in particular went from being available to “out of stock,” “out of stock – no date,” “out of stock – indefinitely” to finally “out of print.”

    (Within a short period of time I had two rolodexes filled with publisher contact info. There’s much more than just the biggies and mom & pop publisher down the street with a cat.)

    Thing is, I feel that if someone wants a copy of the book and a publisher retains the rights then they should somehow be compelled to produce a copy.

    I’m wondering if that is what I should infer from this quote on Galleycat:

    “We believe that our contract appropriately addresses the improved technology, increased availability, and higher quality of print on demand books, and reflects the fact that print on demand titles may now be readily purchased by consumers at both online and brick and mortar stores. We are embracing print on demand technology as an unprecedented opportunity for authors and publishers to keep their books alive and available and selling in the marketplace in a way that may not have been previously possible for many authors, and are confident in the long term it that will be a benefit for all concerned.”

    If they intend on producing copies of books as demand warrants and not dramatically increasing the per copy price, then I think it is a positive step forward for publishing.

    One of my writers club members had several historical romances published by Dell in the 1980s which went out of print. The Authors Guild Back in Print program now has her books available in paperback for $23.95.

    I mean who is going to pay that much for a book which used to go for $5.99 when you can buy a used copy online for a buck or two?

    So if S&S promises by their contract to keep the books in print when there are orders for the book, then I wouldn’t have a problem signing.

    If however, they sit on the rights and not print up copies when potential customers want to order then I would be furious.


  9. Nathan Bransford


    Yes, that is one aspect of POD technology — publishers would be able to fill orders in small batches in cases where in the past they would have had to commit to printing another thousand plus copies to make it economically viable.

    But here’s the thing — that book might not be in S&S’s catalog, they might not actively be selling it, and really, there’s nothing even compelling them to print copies and fill orders as long as there’s an e-book for sale on a website somewhere for it to technically be considered in print. They could just be sitting on the rights in case they could become valuable someday.

    If you’re an author and your book is out of print and you don’t have a problem with leaving the rights with S&S, that’s totally fine — you could leave the rights there as long as you’d like and you don’t have to terminate.

    If, however, you are faced with a situation where your book is out of print and a new publisher is very excited about getting your book back in print and will inject new life into it, only you can’t get the rights back from S&S because it’s for sale on a website somewhere, I can guarantee you’d regret agreeing to this language. This is what has the Authors Guild and agents up in arms. A publisher shouldn’t be able to sit on the rights.

  10. Maya Reynolds

    This is a direct quote from Friday’s Publishers Lunch:

    “The practical question for agents and authors, yet to be given a thorough test from agents we spoke to, is whether this is a revision of starting contract language or a firm move towards a new policy. Indeed the standard S&S boilerplate agreement did not include minimum sales thresholds, though this clause was readily negotiated.”

    In other words, the current S&S contract doesn’t include the minimum sales language either. It’s negotiated on a case-by-case basis as authors and authors’ representatives are smart enough to bring it up.

    While I applaud efforts to keep authors aware of things that might impact their rights, my personal opinion is that Authors Guild overreacted. Until S&S refuses to negotiate to include that language in their contract, this is all speculation.

    This does remind me of how grateful I am for my agent. That minimum sales language wasn’t in the first draft of my contract (not with S&S) either. My agent demanded and got it.

  11. Nathan Bransford


    The “standard” S&S boilerplate agreement is the one given to unagented authors, and I’m sure virtually every agency has their own boilerplate which sets a minimum threshold. I don’t think it was an overreaction on the part of the Authors guild at all — S&S really is now refusing to include the language in their contract and so far it’s been nonnegotiable. It’s a very serious matter.

  12. Maya Reynolds

    I’ve just finished reading the comment stream here.

    POD technology is about MORE choices for readers, not less. It’s about saving money for publishers who don’t have to commit to large print runs, warehousing and dealing with returns. Using POD technology and the Internet means 100% sell-through. There are no returns because the book isn’t printed until the reader orders AND pays for it.

    Hopefully digitization and POD also means more sales for writers because their books are available for longer periods of time.

    However, as Nathan pointed out, the key issue is how your publisher chooses to promote your book in a virtual Internet bookstore.

    Right now Simon & Schuster participates in Google’s Book Partners program. That’s a passive program. If you want to see a more active program, go to Random House or HarperCollins’ websites. They are digitizing their stock and offering a “search inside” feature to push sales.

  13. Nathan Bransford


    Great points!! Also there’s a question about whether a publisher is really getting POD copies into brick and mortar stores, where the majority of book sales still take place.

    POD could represent a great opportunity for writers, as you say, as long as it’s not being used as an excuse for a publisher to hold onto rights in perpetuity.

  14. Maya Reynolds

    Nathan: But there’s no point in putting POD copies in a bookstore unless the publisher has completely moved to a POD technology and is no longer using the old printing technology.

    The whole point of POD is to only print the book when there’s a demand for it. As long as bookstores have the option to return all unsold copies, there’s no advantage to POD technology in a bookstore . . . unless the customer walks into the bookstore and is told, “We’ll order that printed right now and you can pick it up tomorrow morning.”

    I guess I’m just remembering how Authors Guild kneejerked in their response to Google two years ago. They made a huge fuss over essentially nothing.

    I’m glad people like you and Kristen are around to help writers navigate the shoals of getting published.



  15. Jillian

    I self-pubbed a POD NF book several years ago. The whole reason I chose this route was because I wanted to retain all rights to my work. My book will never “go out of print,” and will continue to sell at levels that are in direct proportion to my marketing efforts. (Right now I’m just getting a trickle of royalties each month because I’ve chosen not to pursue the marketing of my NF book, focusing instead on seeking representation and traditional publishing for my fiction).

    POD is excellent for authors, but not if publishing houses hold the work captive indefinitely. My book remains in Ingram’s catalogue yearly, and I can do whatever I want with it at any time — including pulling it, if I desire. It’s my book, my product, my call. Nobody is holding me “hostage,” so to speak.

    Publishing is slowly beginning to change, but S&S’s response to this tide of change is a step backward for authors. I’m encouraged that agents are speaking out against it.

  16. Maya Reynolds

    POD is excellent for authors, but not if publishing houses hold the work captive indefinitely.

    Jillian: POD is excellent for authors, if the publishing house keeps promoting the book. If the publisher doesn’t drive traffic toward the book, it might as well be off the market completely.

  17. whitemouse

    I honestly think I’d rather print with a small publisher than S&S if they’re going to insist on that language. Basically, your book becomes work-for-hire with some royalties thrown in.

    But would an agent be willing to axe a big-money S&S deal and go with a small publisher if the writer requested that? A good agent would, certainly, because they’re supposed to represent their client’s best interests – but every agent?

    This makes me very nervous. I hope S&S rethinks this policy.

  18. Jillian


    That was exactly my point. My POD is self-published, so it’s not an issue for me. I can keep promoting (or not promoting) my book to my heart’s content. I’m not at the mercy of a publishing house. S&S has, in my opinion, taken the wrong approach. And I think that, ultimately, they will discover that they’ve shot themselves in the foot.

  19. Josephine Damian

    Nathan, thanks for making these crucial legal issues more clear for us.

    I think “Gilead” is a good guess for Oprah. I wish she’d announce when “The Road” will be discussed.

    When you get a chance, can you weigh in on why you think so many agents – like Miss Snark – are shutting down their blogs (writers are too, for example Kristy Montee aka PJ Parrish has stopped posting on her “Cabbages and Kings” blog).


  20. Liz

    One downside to POD that hasn’t been discussed is the length of time it takes to get something.

    When I was ordering for our library and saw a book that was POD, I steered clear. It took Baker and Taylor forever to get that book to me. More often than not, it was nonfiction for grades 6-12.

    I don’t know if this is just a B&T issue or a problem that plagues POD in general.

  21. Jillian


    There is always an (annoying) time delay with direct orders for POD, since the book doesn’t exist until you order it. The best situation is having the book stocked by key vendors. For instance, Amazon always has a few copies of my book in stock, so that it’s got the same quick shipping as other titles on Amazon. When my book was first published, though, Amazon did not stock copies (it hadn’t “proven” itself in the market yet), so yes, there was a delay in shipping (unfortunately about a week).

  22. nancorbett

    Simon and Schuster’s new stance on OOP work is creating quite a stir, indeed. The newsletter put out by my local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators came out with the news, adding that writers should ask their agents not to submit to S&S.

    Right. Like I’d turn down an offer to have them publish my book.

    S&S undoubtedly knew that all kinds of knees would jerk when they made this move. But I think it’s just a scent on the wind compared to other changes in the publishing industry soon to come about. POD as a business model makes way too sense. I predict that it will change the way books are published. If publishers no longer need to make much of an up front investment when publishing a book, and they only have to print the copies that are actually sold, what will that mean for us poor stiffs out here vying for their attention? It probably just means that most, if not all, of the publicity will be done by the writer until a book creates its own momentum. I’m already seeing some authors creating a buzz for their new releases using web 2.0 method such as blogging.

    I think that we’re on the cusp of a very dynamic time in publishing.

    Okay…getting down off of my soap box now.


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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