In the past few months, the story of Harper Lee and the controversy surrounding her sequel to “To Kill a Mocking Bird” had authors talking again about how it seems everyone is on a mission to rip authors off. In fact, things have gotten so bad that the Author’s Guild has started a new campaign for what they’re calling a fair contract initiative which they hope will help authors achieve a fair and balanced return for their work.
Even though I’m not a big fan of the Authors Guild, I do believe this is a worthy cause. So in today’s post, I’m going to lay out several examples of authors signing unfair contracts as well as authors getting their rights stolen from them. I also discuss how one New York publisher tried to take digital ebook rights from authors before they were even invented!
You Learn Something New Every Day
Two weeks ago, on the Red River Writer’s podcast, I was asked, what kind of advice I’d give to new authors and I answered, “Authors need to know what’s normal in a publishing contract. These days publishers are taking almost all an author’s licensing rights including movie rights. Publishers don’t even sell books anymore, are we expected to believe they’re shopping our movie rights to Hollywood?” Our guest, Bennet Pomerantz, an author, book reviewer and radio host extraordinaire, responded that it might be because Amazon has their own movie studio. The host and I were shocked, I hadn’t even heard of the Amazon movie studio!
So I did my research and learned yes, Amazon did open a movie studio in 2010. Bennet also mentioned that Netflix has a studio of its own and they’re experimenting with producing their own movies. It all made sense now, and publishers being publishers, figured, why not take these rights before someone else (the author) makes money from it? This is why it’s so important for authors to know what exactly they are selling in a publishing contract.
Before I go further, let me explain the types of licensing rights authors usually exploit:
2. Digital (ebooks, apps, video games, etc.)
8. Franchise: (allowing other writers to use characters from your books as long as they give a percentage of the royalties)
The list does go on, but these are the more common rights that authors sell. In the case of a traditional publisher, they are generally given the right to publish a book in print, ebook or audio form however, they do not own the copyright to your book. You are just giving them permission (license) to publish and distribute your book.
Most experienced publishing professionals will tell you that you should never EVER sign over all your book’s licensing rights. This is what the creators of Superman did in 1938, when they sold the rights to their company (which created the comic character) for only $150. They also had some sort of a work for hire deal with DC Comics that got complicated later on. As we all know, the comic book character went on to become a global multi-million dollar phenomenon but the creators only got a tiny fraction of what DC Comics got. Over the years, the creators had to sue on multiple occasions just to get access to royalties due them. The latest lawsuit occurred in 2008, when Jerry Siegel’s estate sued over the Superboy character.
Back to the Harper Lee Story…
Let’s not forget the case of Harper Lee, (author of To Kill a Mocking Bird) who was duped into signing over copyrights to a former agent. For those who don’t know, Ms. Lee is living in a nursing home and has been nearly blind and deaf for years. However, that didn’t stop her agent who went over to the nursing home and got her to sign a contract giving him the rights to her book! P.S. a judge later declared the contract was null and void then ordered the agent to give back the money he took.
It explains the recent outcry when it was announced that there would be a sequel to her bestseller. Many believe she is being taken advantage of yet again, while Harper Lee herself has publicly denied being duped into anything. Later an investigation was launched by authorities who found no signs of fraud.
I guess the moral of this story is not even bestseller status protects you from the problems in the publishing world.
All Things Not Yet Seen
In 2009, Random House sent a letter to several authors when they noticed them selling the digital rights of their books to other companies. They were told in a memo they were in violation of their contract. Now keep in mind, some of these contracts were 20+ years old, and ebooks as we know them, didn’t exist back then. Later on, a tiny clause was found in some contracts that specified RH could publish manuscripts in book form. Agents and authors cried foul but RH stood by its reasoning and proceeded to take several companies to court.
So how do you keep yourself out this kind of legal nightmare? That’s easy, you educated yourself. There are several websites and books that can help authors decipher contracts, here are a few resources to look at:
- Author’s Alliance Library Resource
- Ask the Experts at the Independent Book Publisher’s Association
- Online Course by Writer’s Digest
P.S. I’m not affiliate with any of the products or services mentioned.
As you can see, there was never a golden era in publishing, where authors were pampered and protected. Things have always been tough in this business however today, it’s different. The industry as we know it is fading away and many people are getting desperate especially, those within the ivory towers. The only way to protect ourselves and fight back is to educate ourselves. It’s hard to con an author who knows their legal rights and an educated author is what the industry fears.