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What is the Appropriate Term for a Book Contract?

The truth is: long book contracts look increasingly unattractive.

By Edward Nawotka

Today’s feature story looks at a new guide to rights written by German publishing executive Petra Hardt. The article notes:

For example, contract length is a point that Hardt emphatically stresses as crucial to the prosperity of both the publisher and the author. It often takes a publishing house well over a decade to fully develop the potential of many authors, particularly more literary or intellectual ones. Hardt cites the example of Walter Benjamin, who was translated and became culturally significant in several countries only a few years before the end of his term of copyright. In any case “seven to ten years is too short.”

The question is: what is the appropriate term for a book contract? In the age of digital publishing, the opportunities for authors continue to evolve, often faster than publishers can take advantage of them. Is it appropriate to tie an author to a 20-year contract, or even a 10-year contract, any longer? Or is a longer term simply the cost of doing business, as publishers reap a large percentage of profit from developing and selling backlist? Authors, naturally, will want the shortest term contract possible, but how far are publishers willing to compromise knowing there are digital publishing start-ups and companies like Amazon looking for opportunities to build their own lists and willing to make authors contractual offers publishers might never have considered only a few years ago.

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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One Comment

  1. Posted February 1, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Personally, as a writer, I think no more than 10 years (more like 5-7 years really)for a contract, with an understanding (written into the contract) that the author will re-sign at the end of the contract so long as the publisher has kept their end of the deal.

    With a new signing fee and maybe a facility to renegotiate royalty rates (on both side: selling well, better royalties for the author, selling poorly better royalties for the publisher).

    Writers have to understand that publishers need to make money and sometime that takes time. Publishers have to understand that a writer’s greatest fear is having their work tied up with a publisher who is doing nothing to promote it, but, for whatever reason, is keeping it in print so the writer can’t get the rights back.

    So a set time for the contract, then if everything is working well, the contract is extended for another time period. But if it isn’t then both sides can walk away intact.

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