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For an author, the term “copyright” usually means being recognized as the creator of a work.
To a publisher, however, the term “copyright” has everything to do with the buying and selling of rights to publish a book.
Here’s a partial list of the multitude of publishing licenses inherent in a single author’s copyright.
• Hardcover book on paper
• Softcover book on paper
• Electronic book
• Audio book
• Movie rights
• Foreign language rights
• Television rights
• Magazine rights
PUBLISHING LICENSES AND TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING
When an author seeks a traditional publisher for her or his work, that author is seeking a buyer for their publishing rights. That is the basic exchange spelled out in a publishing contract.
Now, most authors are way too excited about landing a contract from a traditional publisher to consider all of the implications of this exchange so before you head off to look for a pen, let’s talk about this while your head is clear.
When you sell a company the license to publish your book, that license is exclusive to that publisher and in this day and age, it’s rare for a traditional publisher to buy anything less than all the publishing licenses for a book in perpetuity.
Here are some of the implications inherent (and unwritten) in a traditional book contract:
• Authors are forbidden from selling copies of their book directly to bookstores, libraries and most other retail venues.
• Authors receive a set number of copies of their book (usually 50) from their publisher. After that, they agree to pay a certain price (usually 40% less than retail) to purchase additional copies of their book from their publisher.
• The final say on editorial changes, retail price, royalty rates, the size of a print run, distribution, covers, back cover copy, interior design, and title belong to the publisher.
• Authors are expected to actively market their books. In fact, most publishers seek authors who are active marketers. It is rare for a publisher to contribute funding toward an author’s marketing campaign.
• Publishers are responsible for sending out review copies of an author’s book. Authors are expected to suggest review outlets. Sending out review copies generally constitutes the entirety of a publisher’s marketing efforts.
• The active marketing cycle for most books is 90 days from publication date in traditional publishing. After that period of time, active marketing support for a book diminishes until it doesn’t exist at all.
• Even though publishers drop most marketing efforts for a book after 90 days, they still retain the exclusive right to publish it. This right exists even if there are no copies of a book available for purchase by readers.
• Writers can buy back the publishing rights to their books for a price. Sometimes that price is very low. Sometimes it is high.
• If your publisher goes out of business, goes bankrupt or is sold to another company, the publishing licenses it holds are considered assets of the company and stay with the company. They do not revert to their authors.
PUBLISHING LICENSES AND SELF-PUBLISHING COMPANIES
Self-publishing companies operate in a somewhat shadowy realm between traditional publishing and independent publishing. We’ll get into more detail about them later on but for now, here’s what you need to know about the implications of signing a contract with a self-publishing company.
• The author agrees to pay a certain amount of money to the company for services such as editing, cover, interior design, and marketing.
• The company creates the formats in which a book is made available to readers, usually a PDF for books-on-paper and ebook files
• Self-publishing company contracts stipulate that they are the “owners” of all original formats (PDF or ebook file) from which books are made available to readers EVEN THOUGH this work is paid for by authors.
• Distribution of self-published books is usually limited to the company’s website and online retailers. Most bookstores will not stock self-published books. Libraries will not buy them.
• Some self-publishing company contracts allow authors to purchase the original formats of their books—PDFs and ebook files—for a price that’s not included in the service agreements that authors have already paid for.
Yep, if you want them, you get to pay for those files twice.
TWO PIECES OF ADVICE
It is vitally important that authors understand their rights before venturing out on any publishing path. There is no room for sentiment here. Copyright is all about business. It is what you, as an author, are selling. Wearing a hard hat is recommended.
That being said, here are two pieces of advice to take with you if you decide to explore options in either the traditional or self-publishing realm.
• Seek the services of a reputable agent or copyright attorney before you sign any contracts with a traditional publisher.
• Don’t go anywhere near self-publishing companies.