Authors versus publishers in the digital age

As many of you will know, there's quite a debate going on about Google's plan to make every book ever published available online.

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."

"Er- yes."

"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."

So what?
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.

Advice please!
So, to quote Lenin, what is to be done? And here I really would welcome advice from readers on the two main options:
  1. 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?
  2. 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).


Unknown said...

Have you considered getting the rights back and then making it free?

That would generate interest in your other books and your blog. You could charge for the updated chapters?

Livia Blackburne said...

This is very interesting. So according to your contract, when were you supposed to get the rights back? Keep us posted on what you decide to do.
Jamie idea is worth considering, espcially if you'd like to increase web traffic.

Diandra said...

Goodness, I don't know anything about author rights and that stuff at all. Need to update myself a bit.

Usually, I prefer books on paper to books on the screen, but for simple research I use GOOGLE BOOKS a lot these days (yes, I am one of those people). So I guess putting a non-fiction work up as an e-Book should find many buyers. And you would have more say in what happens with the book (although it might also be more work for you).

Bomo68 said...

I read Our Masters' Voices earlier this year. I got a second-hand copy because the Amazon price was too steep. It's a cracking book, but as you say, very dated. Also at the end of the book you make the point that it is conversational skills rather than oratory which is prized in the modern politician.

I would take Jamie's idea. Don't update it. Just publish it for free as a PDF, and use it as a taster for LMYE and future books.

Max Atkinson said...

I greatly appreciate all these comments, which I'm finding very helpful. Jamie's suggestion, plus support it gets from others is making me feel like a real skinflint for even thinking of charging for an e-version.

My only excuse is that I worry about the way the digital age is making everyone expect to be able to get their hands on all kinds of information free, or at minimal cost, however much it may have cost to produce the information in the first place - and I'd love to know how much William paid for his 2nd hand copy of 'Our Masters' Voices'!

The problem is already very evident in the case of newspapers, more and more of which are closing down because they haven't (yet) worked out how to make money out from their free online editions.

The same is also true in the music industry, where consumers increasingly expect to be able to fill up their iPods at no cost to themselves - and where the only way musicians can get anywhere near to making a living is by increasing the number of live gigs they do.

Similar trends are, I fear, already taking hold in the book business, with chain stores like Waterstones offering more and more 2 for the price of 1 offers, and where the RRP (recommended retail price) now means: 'you'd be very silly to pay as much as this for the book'.

Amazon's price of £7.11 for 'Lend Me Your Ears' is less than it costs to buy a decent bottle of wine and only 10% more than one packet of 20 cigarettes (at UK prices).

Where this relentless devaluation of so many different types of information will take us, I have no idea. But there's still enough of a sociologist left in me to worry about living in a society where knowledge is regarded as so unimportant that it's hardly worth paying for.

dreamingspire said...

"Google's plan to make every book ever published available online"
Would they like to make available online a book written by a distant relative of mine and published around 1860? According to a living distant relative who has been researching family history for many years across two continents, only about half a dozen copies have surfaced. Also there was no reference to it online until I put a query out there. Perhaps I should devote my retirement to digitising it...

dreamingspire said...

"knowledge is regarded as so unimportant that it's hardly worth paying for"
Forgive me for adding another note straight after the last one, but wasn't so much of the knowledge that we who were brought up BI (Before Internet) imparted to us FOC or very nearly so? The radio licence and then TV licence were extremely good value, orators spoke at Speakers Corner, the older generation passed it on...

Eoin Purcell said...


Firstly if you have a copy of the original contract you should find out how that contract defines out of print and what you have to do in order to request rights reversion if the book falls into that category. I suspect:
1) the book is out of print by that contracts terms and
2) it may take up to a year to enable the rights to be reverted, but push them to do it earlier our of goodwill.

You should bear in mind that they will not be under any obligation to supply digital files of the book to you on reversion (they may not own any given the time lapse and that POD printers can simply take a book and scan it). They might be moved to supply one if they own one through goodwill though! On the other hand if they have it, they'll sell it to you for relatively little as that is par for the course in international rights sales.

On the economics of it, either ebook or POD sales would surely deliver more to you over a year even if unit sales are lower and you could add in two or three more chapters and have another publisher release a new edition. Your options would certainly be better with rights reverted!
Good luck!

PS: Some modern contracts are explicit that in print means available through POD! Commercially Available I think is the parlance!

Jo Bottrill said...

Eoin's point about digital files is well worth considering, although scanning/keying and proofreading the book back can be done very cheaply these days.

I reckon you should post it for free on the web, keep updating it and flog hardcopies via a POD channel. The increased traffic to your site and the knock to sales of your other "stuff" will be welcome and if one in ten thousand visitors to the free content go off and buy a paper copy to read properly then you're quids in.

If you're still nervous about putting the whole thing up online, why not start posting the updated bits now. Post the new chapter on xyz and you're rekindling interest in the book and potentially driving more sales of the paper thing. Presumably you can do that whoever has the rights.

If the POD stuff is too much for you to manage, find someone to do it for you for a set price (I'd do it). If you adopt a self-publishing model it doesn't mean you have to do everything yourself.


John Turner said...

I do hope you solve this one, as I'm sure you would sell many more copies to-day.

I believe Malcolm Gladwell's latest book "What the Dog Saw" is a compilation of freely available posts from either his own website, or from the New Yorker.

Nevertheless, the hard copy will (deservedly) sell a lot of copies, because people still like a good book.

I suggest you try something similar. An online resource, containing much of the information for free, and a link to an online place to purchase the hard copy.

The wider subject regarding "free information" is something I've blogged about (and mentioned your own recent "top ten Presentation tips" list you did for the BBC website. My link takes you to that post.

The key to making money out of knowledge in our field is to get customers, and coach them. People learn little about speaking and presenting from books (though they can be interesting to read). People learn from active coaching.

Having said that, I did buy "Lend Me Your Ears", and would buy "Our Master's Voices" in hard copy too, if it were up to date; it would sit well on my shelf.

The online community will ensure that knowledge is shared much more freely in future. I think the next generation embraces that.

pintosal said...

The cost of publishing your own book in hardback or paperback is now extremely low, even for small runs of 100.

As you are well known amongst the cognoscenti, why not strike out on your own. So, no, not for free!

I'd always much prefer a physical book to e-book, pdf etc because of the portability, feel etc.