Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

RH Gets Brazen!

STATUS: We are in the final days. Ack. Such a list of things to accomplish!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN by Dave Brubeck
We interrupt this Q&A to give you an announcement.

And here I thought Simon & Schuster was brazen in the summer of 2008 when they tried to drop off the crucial 4 lines of their Out of Print clause. Random House has that beat hands down with their recent pronouncement that by default, electronic rights belong to them via their definition of what is a “book” for any backlist title still in print.

From the letter they sent to agents:
“The vast majority of our backlist contracts,” writes Dohle, “grant us the exclusive right to publish books in electronic formats. At the same time, we are aware there have been some misunderstandings concerning ebook rights in older backlist titles. Our older older agreements often give the exclusive rights to publish ‘in book form’ or ‘in any and all editions’. Many of those contracts also include enhanced language that references other forms of copying or displaying the text that might be developed in the future or other more relevant language that more specifically reflects the already expansive scope of rights. Such grants are usually not limited to any specific format, and indeed the “form” of a book has evolved over the years to include variations of hardcover, paperback and other written word formats, all of which have understood to be included in the grant of book publishing rights. Indeed, ebook retailers market, sell and merchandise ebooks as an alternate book format, alongside the hardcover, trade paperback and mass market versions of a given title. Whether physical or digital, the product is used and experienced in the same manner, serves the same function, and satisfies the same fundamental urge to discovery stories, ideas and information through the process of reading. Accordingly, Random House considers contracts that grant the exclusive right to publish ‘in book form’ or ‘in any and all editions’ to include the exclusive right to publish in electronic book publishing formats. Our agreements also contain broad non-competition provisions, so that the author is precluded from granting publishing rights to third parties that would compromise the rights for which Random House has bargained.”

Oh really now. I have a feeling that many agencies and the Authors Guild are going to disagree with this interpretation.

My agency hasn’t been around long enough to have to confront this (as digital rights were already addressed in any RH contracts I’ve done in the last 7 years) but that’s not the case for many agents I know who have been doing this 20+ years.

And speaking of an agent who has been doing this for a long time, Richard Curtis gives some insight on this RH rights grab via his blog E-Reads.


13 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    While I’d still love to get an agent and a big name publisher, everything I’m reading lately is making my decision to self-pub a couple of books a better idea all the time.

    I will differentiate for those who pooh-pooh any type of publishing not done by major/minor publisher.

    Self-publishing does not mean I hand over a rough draft to iUniverse or PublishAmerica. It means that I have run my book through lots and lots of critiques with other writers who know their stuff. I formatted the books by myself (and they look lovely). I did my own covers (and they look lovely). I have alternately used CreateSpace’s free ISBN, my own ISBN, or ISBN through Lulu’s Publish Your Self program.

    Oh, what’s the use. Those who are down on any books not produced by the “name” publishers will dis my books without ever bothering to even look at a free preview available through Kindle.

  2. behlerblog said:

    I see this as a rights grab. When those contracts were written e-books weren’t a glimmer in anyone’s eye, so how can they possibly go back and retroactively claim they own the e-rights to something that wasn’t exclusively licensed, the way they do with hardbacks and mass media/soft covers, and audio?

  3. Evangeline Holland said:

    Hmm…what does this mean for agents submitting their clients’ work to RH? Or for current RH authors? If other publishers begin to grab e-rights, how will agents approach them with new projects? I also wonder if, in this tightening market, RH will use an agent’s fighting against this grab to pass on the manuscript?

  4. Adrienne said:

    Dear Anon – really? Reading this made you not want an agent anymore? See when I read this I was all like, “Thank goodness for agents who are keeping their eyes open for things like this so the publishers won’t get away with this stuff!”

    I know agent appreciation day was Friday, but Kristin (even though you’re not my agent), I appreciate you. 🙂

  5. David Kearns said:

    When I was seven years old our teacher, Sister Katleen, brought a gerbil into class. Poor thing, her mate had died in transit from the pet shop.

    How we loved her, staring at her through the wee bars of the cage. I recall the smell of sawdust and the sound of the little wheel spinning.

    One day that gerbil gave birth to four healthy little pink pups, all crinkly of skin with their eyes closed. So adorable.

    One night someone forgot to feed that mother gerbil. The following morning, as it was me who checked on her first, I watched in horror as she devoured her young, one by one.

    I turned to tell the teacher and the rest of the class. For a moment they refused to believe a cute little gerbil could do something so monsterous.

    Believe it. These people will eat their young, they will steal your rights. It has gotten that bad.

  6. Laurel said:

    I’m not sure what to think about this. I view the valuable commodity of a book as content and believe that in theory, at least, when an author enters a contract both the author and publisher implicitly recognize that what is being sold is the intellectual property. An eBook comes under that umbrella even if the contract was negotiated before anyone was thinking of eBooks.

    If the contract included language that frees the author after a certain amount of time (when the book is presumably past shelf life) then the same applies. eBook rights revert just like any others.

    I guess I would have a problem with this if RH is unwilling to put the book into digital format but refused to release an author to pursue that option elsewhere, which I could see happening.

    Based on the link, however, I doubt this will hold up if it is challenged in court.

  7. Sarah Tormey said:

    While I can see this as a cause for concern from the author/agent side of the table, I think it might be a smart move for RH. Having worked their in the past, I know they are struggling with the changes in the book business and with the current marketplace. They need to look at every decision from the perspective of what is best of their business, and in the end their bottom line.

  8. Anonymous said:


    I moderate a book review blog which receives significant traffic. Publishers and authors send a lot of ARCs, even hardbacks. We participate in blogosphere-wide events.

    Should I mention that in my query or does it make no difference?

    Could it even be a strike against me? As polite as I am, I do have opinions because, hey, I read a TON of books. I also decline to review some books.

    P.S. I’m asking you and anonymously because I’m not planning on querying you and wanted an opinion detached from anything having to do with my own book.


  9. Anne said:

    Well, as a law student, I appreciate the legal thinking that went into that argument. It’s bold. And there is some basis, on the face of the matter, for their position, such as the language that covers formats that hadn’t yet evolved at the time of the contract. Obviously it’s bad for authors, and I’m also happy that there are agents making arguments on the other side. It looks like an issue that will need to be litigated.

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