Author Contracts 2.0: Putting Cash Before Copyright and Control

In Digital by Liz Bury

By Liz Bury

In the world of multi-channel digital distribution the future author contract is likely to put transparency and cash flow above copyright protection, as a new working dynamic emerges between publishers and authors.

The advent of digital distribution means that authors should “surrender to the inevitable” and let go of control of their work, said Clive Rich, principal of Rich Futures, speaking at law firm Olswang’s Books 2.0 confab in London last Friday.


Clive Rich

“As lack of control seeps into digital distribution, so it will seep into author contracts. It’s understandable that authors may want approval on all the different channels, but it’s not realistic.”

Transparency is the pay off. Rather than a royalty statement every month, a “realistic objective” for authors might be to get notice of any deals and, in so far as publishers are receiving reports from a distributor, monthly or even weekly reports on consumer purchases and other activity.

“Deals will happen in the here and now and the author should get to know as much as possible about the terms of that deal. There could be reports on number of users, hits, how many times an application is downloaded, average dwell times, or number of units sold,” Rich said. Accepting that books may be “unbundled” — that is, sold as fragments or chapters — is part of this.

As authors develop conversations with their readers (via blogging and social media) the digital service provider can collect information, which may then be used for more conversations and to up-sell. “It’s a legitimate area of interest for the author to be able to share in that data; they could send an email about the new book with a call to action.” Authors could collect the data through their own websites.

Future contracts will reflect the multiple opportunities that authors have to market themselves and their works directly to their readers. “If you imagine a world in which authors ‘don’t need a publisher,’ it encourages the publisher to take a different view. The contract looks more like a service agreement. Publishers have scale and reach and access to funds that authors don’t have, but the paradigm looks slightly different.”

Recording contracts for music artists are beginning to reflect this: instead of accounting for a royalty, some publishers receive the proceeds and take various commissions for services to the artist. The suite of services from which an author can pick and choose might include sales, product development, channel development, merchandise, creative services/artwork, press, publicity and media buying, market insight, physical manufacturing . . . the list goes on.

Access to the author and the “world around the book” is highly valued in this digital future. “Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails tiers his products: digital version of the new album; digital and physical; multipack with photos and videos; with tour tickets; right up to watching him at the recording studios.” It’s likely to be possible to structure opportunities for readers to enter the world of the book, from it inception to a final customized product based on a reader’s wants or needs.

The downside of digital for authors is that advances will most likely fall. “It wouldn’t be surprising if publishers’ ability to fund advances decreases as the physical market for books declines. In the music industry, physical sales eroded quicker than the ability of digital to replace them.” Improved cash flow may go some way to make up for it.

In any case, these changes “are going to happen. The world reinvents itself without you. The music industry’s failure to engage spawned Napster, et al. Working together, authors and publishers have a great opportunity,” says Rich.

READ: Further coverage of Olswang’s Books 2.0 event at The Bookseller

RE-VISIT: M.J. Rose’s earlier Publishing Perspective piece about re-thinking author contracts.

SEE: A biography of Clive Rich

DISCUSS: Do analytics and fan interaction help or hinder authors?

About the Author

Liz Bury


Liz Bury has been a writer and editor for 20 years, covering books, design and business risk. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Building Design and The Bookseller, among other publications. She can be found tweeting rarely @lizziebbrown and on LinkedIn at