In a comment on my recent post, Mark Denning asked what I thought about Stephen “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” Covey moving electronic rights to some of his books exclusively to Amazon, as reported in this morning’s New York Times. So here are some first thoughts, Mark.
Publishers are in the midst of seeking to secure electronic rights from their authors. Where that is proving difficult, they claim that, since contracts give them rights to the works in “book form” and prohibit the authors from issuing competitive projects, authors can’t unilaterally sell electronic rights to those works. But authors seem to be doing this anyway.
It’s a mistake, however, for anyone to sign exclusive electronic rights to Amazon. There are dozens of venues for electronic books. Sure, Amazon is big, but there is no guarantee they will be the player of choice in five years. The landscape is constantly shifting. Remember Atari? That is so twentieth century! What about Palm Pilot? Palm’s around but the Pilot? He gone. So electronic agreements should be nonexclusive. Today’s platform is tomorrow’s landfill. Spread the wealth.
Nevertheless, electronic rights should be in the hands of one party. I’m not contradicting what I just wrote. All electronic rights should be licensed nonexclusively so that many people can sell a work electronically. But only one person or company should be doing the licensing. Only one should have the responsibility to decide who gets which licenses, at what rates, for how long, in what formats, and so forth. You don’t want a situation where two parties are selling identical rights to the same outlets. That’s a recipe for chaos. It’s not in anyone’s interest–not author, publisher or e-tailer.
The advantage a publisher has is that it has dozens or hundreds (maybe thousands) of books to sell electronically, so it can afford to build those relationships and gain that market knowledge for maximum advantage and income. Authors working on their own don’t have that going for them.
Nonetheless, the publisher has to prove that its expertise is valuable and worth it to the author. Publishers have to earn their stripes every day, proving that they can do a better job for authors than authors could do on their own or through other means. They can’t rest on reputation or size. Performance, day in and day out, is what matters.
Publishers have to know well the dozens of electronic outlets available and build ongoing relationships with them. Publishers need to know which outlets are best for which works, which should be avoided, what the going rates are, and so forth.
I’ve argued here before that the “next book” clause should be eliminated from every contract. Authors shouldn’t be obligated to offer a subsequent book to the publisher after the contracted book. Rather, the publisher needs to earn the right to sign the next book with an author. Likewise with electronic publishing. Publishers need to earn the right to be the sole licensor of digital rights by doing a great job with those rights.