Although publishers are making a lot of noise about it, they've stayed remarkably quiet about another wheeze they've been exploiting since the digital age got under way - and about which they haven't bothered to tell their authors.
Does a book ever go out of print?
As you'll see from the second box from the right at the top of this page, Our Masters Voices can still be obtained from Amazon. And I've long been amazed that it seems to have stayed in print for as long as the 25 years since it was first published by Methuen in 1984.
But the operative words here are seems to have stayed in print, because I've just discovered that, in the traditional meaning of the term, it hasn't really stayed in print at all
It's current publisher only prints a copy if someone actually orders one. In other words, it now falls into a category that didn't exist before the digital age, namely POD or print on demand.
Nor had such a category even been dreamt of a quarter of a century ago when I signed the original contract with Methuen (later taken over by Routledge, later taken over by Tayor & Francis).
When I raised the issue with the 'publisher' recently, I asked the obvious question:
"Does this mean that books never go out of print these days?"
"Well, er - in a sense, yes" came the reply.
"But didn't the original contract say that the rights would revert to the author if and when the publisher stops printing it."
"But you're saying that you stop printing it for however many weeks pass before you get another order?"
"Er- yes" (again).
"So does that mean that the rights never revert to authors any more?"
"Well, er (again) - if you wrote to us asking for them back, we'd probably have to agree to revert them to you."
If the digital age has incited publishers to do things that hadn't been thought of when they originally signed up their authors, it's also created new opportunities for authors to do things they couldn't have done in the past either.
I've just received the princely sum of £53.60 for last year's royalties on the book, which they're now selling at an RRP of £18.99 (or £16.54 from Amazon UK and $34.15 from Amazon USA).
Last year, world sales of this ('still in print') book came to a grand total of 51.
So, if the rights reverted to me and I made it available in digital form from my websites, and reduced the price to £10.00 per copy, I'd only have to sell 6 copies a year to earn more than the miserable royalty payment just received from the 'publishers'.
If I sold the same number in my first year as they sold last year (51), I'd receive £510 rather than £53.60.
An added bonus?
There's another reason why I'd quite like to have the rights back, which is that it would enable me to add new material that the various publishers who've had their hands on it were too mean to let me do in the past.
For example, after the 1987 election, I asked if I could add another chapter (based on a paper on it that I'd given at a conference).
"No", said the publishers of the day (Routledge). "Far too expensive to add any more to it and, in any case, it's selling quite well as it is."
So they went ahead and reprinted it, without the extra chapter, in 1988, 1989, 1991 and 1994.
Then, some time during the 1990s, an article in The Guardian generously referred to the book as 'the best ever guide to the way politicians speak', but pointed out (rightly) that it could do with updating. This must have woken the publishers up, because they suddenly phoned me, for the first time in years, to suggest that I should update it with more recent examples of political speakers and speeches.
But by then it was too late and would have involved far too much work for too little reward - and other commitments meant that I simply didn't have the time.
Now, however, having written two more books on public speaking, not to mention more than 3oo blog posts on the subject, I think I'm ready to do quite a reasonable 'update'.
But I don't want to do it for them, even if the previous offer still stands.
Nor do I want to revise the original, as I'd rather it stayed available as it was in the first place - but with additional chapters on how political communication has changed since 1984.
So, to quote Lenin, what is to be done? And here I really would welcome advice from readers on the two main options:
- Should I leave things as they are, keep up the boastful pretence that one of my books has stayed in print continuously for 25 years and receive an annual pittance in royalties?
- Or should I get the rights back and make the book available in electronic form, at a lower price and with the addition of new material on what's changed since 1984?
Any suggestions, gratefully received on a postcard, in the comments section below or by email (via 'View my profile' section, above left).