An article from PW Newsline sparked all sorts of thoughts in our little brain. Maybe it’s because we do love to discuss contractual stuff (no really, we do; it’s like a fetish without encountering actual leather). Or maybe it’s because we cannot read anything without putting our own unique spin on the subject. Please stop laughing now.
Several years ago, the very prolific and very profitable Nora Roberts stopped writing for Silhouette Books (part of the Harlequin family). Various reasons were given for her decision, but it could not be denied that Roberts was making pools of money from books being published by Putnam Berkley (and even a workaholic like Roberts can only write so much). However, an astute shopper will note that there are plenty of Silhouette titles by Roberts on the bookshelves (for those who aren’t up on things, titles by Silhouette or Harlequin are generally for in retail outlets for approximately one month). Clearly, Silhouette is exploiting her backlist to the fullest:
But Roberts stopped writing new books for Harlequin several years ago in favor of titles for Putnam Berkley. Shortly after, Harlequin’s output spiked. By one unofficial count, fifteen books have come out from Harlequin in the last eleven months, many of them so-called category books first released in the mid-’80s….
Harlequin editor Isabel Swift, though, refutes the claim. She says that while the Roberts output is higher than that of the recent few years, the number is consistent with backlist releases from earlier in the novelist’s career. And she disagrees that these books are anything more than a desire to open up Roberts to new readers–and are far from a sales liability.
Roberts is apparently unhappy with the recent releases (per the PW article which quotes her agent, Amy Berkower on the subject), but it doesn’t appear that her other books are suffering due to the large amount of Nora Roberts product on the shelf (though we’ve heard anecdotal stories from readers who were “fooled” into thinking they were purchasing new titles, only to discover they held a reprint in their hands…but that’s another topic):
So does all the backlist create confusion? Berkower says it’s hard to know, or show, anything concretely. Harlequin says no. Berkley publicity director Liz Perl that frontlist sales have “kept going up.” But Putnam, which has not been in contact with Harlequin, was sufficiently worried that it now prints a special insignia on the jackets of new books.
So what is our problem? We’re so happy you asked. We’re focused on a little thing known as “Reversion of Rights.” Unlike many contractual terms, it is exactly what it appears: wherein the license term expires, and all rights are returned to the author. The Harlequin contract, essentially, states that rights are returned to an author after the book has remained out of print for a certain period of time (we do not know the specific language in Roberts’ agreements, so are using the standard contract for the purpose of our example — while we’re focused on one author, the implications are universal). Clearly, by reprinting her backlist at regular intervals, Harlequin is making it difficult for Roberts’ rights to revert.
So what, you say. She’s doing all right. Not so fast, our friend. There is another piece of this. Yes, electronic publishing rights. Our understanding from unnamed sources is the standard royalty on ebooks for Harlequin is the same as for retail sales (an approximately 8% royalty on the retail price). Again, we don’t know the specifics of Roberts’ agreement, so we’re generalizing here. Dedicated electronic publishers pay 25 – 50% royalties. We’re not so good with math, but there’s a huge differential there. Random House, which recently lowered it’s royalties, will still be paying 15 to 30% royalties. It could be worse — it could be 8%.
Given her track record and growing fan base, it’s clear that regaining her rights to her works could improve Roberts’ financial position. One might say she probably doesn’t need the money, but that’s not the point. By preventing rights from reverting back to the author, Harlequin is depriving the author of the ability to enter into more favorable deals.
We understand this practice is not uncommon (we’ve also heard of authors who are actively working to regain their rights in order to better exploit their works themselves). Ebook sales are growing. They are not astronomical, but they are growing. Ebook sales of mainstream works (that is titles published by major houses versus dedicated electronic publishers) are especially robust. And because publishers long to hold on to their (licensed) assets, they resort to legal, but possibly not ethical, tricks to keep rights from reverting. This is call smart business, and we understand the logic behind it (we spent so many years arguing these points from the other side, we can’t help but see both sides of the issue).
So where does that leave you? Well, hopefully thinking about retaining as many rights as possible when you license your book to a publisher. Also, hopefully thinking about what is reasonable when it comes to royalties for new markets (even the motion picture industry has given ground on this issue as it relates to video royalties — but talk about a long battle!). And hopefully thinking about lengths of licenses. We believe the publishing game is mutually beneficial to all parties. We also know that he who writes the contract has the most favorable terms. As we often say, writing is an art and a business — it’s up to you to pay attention to both.