Chip MacGregor

December 14, 2008

Business Questions


I've had a bunch of questions about the business side of writing lately…

Dawn asked about a reprint issue: "I noticed that Amazon allows people to search inside my books — but that  means they've posted a sample chapter. Is that legal? Isn't that giving away a section of the book in violation of my publishing contract?"

If you'll take a look at your publishing contract, you'll see in the "marketing" section some wording that allows the publisher the right to use short sections of your book for marketing purposes. That's the clause allowing publishers to work with Amazon's "Search Inside" feature. They monitor how many pages a customer can actually view, and they limit the page count so that nobody can read the entire book. In cases where the Table of Contents is critical, they don't make that available. Amazon also blocks readers from copying the text, so they've created a feature that helps sell your book, but tries not to give too much away.

The folks at Amazon have noted that this is their way of competing with your local bookstore. If you walk into any Borders or B&N, you can take a book off the shelf and flip through it. (In fact, you could sit at their cafe and read the whole thing — a feature you cannot do on Amazon.) So the "search inside" aspect is a form of marketing — letting potential readers get a peek at your book. Perfectly legal.

Jessy wrote this: "I'm a volunteer writer for a quarterly publication. Recently the publisher told me he would be issuing a special anniversary edition, and would include all my stories. I've never received any monetary compensation for my writing, so my question is: To whom do those stories belong — the magazine or me?"

First, take a look at your publishing agreement, Jessy. If you've got a written contract of some kind (whether it's for a story, or for your work for the publication), it should spell out ownership. Second, it's customary for writers to retain the rights to stories in periodicals, so you'll probably find that others in your situation have retained their reprint and secondary rights. Third, talk to the publisher. If you've been volunteering, there must be some sense of good will that's been built. I doubt he or she will want you to come away from this with a bad taste in your mouth. My guess is a quick discussion could resolve much of this. If there's a dispute, rely on what's written. If there's nothing written, both you and your publisher are going to need to resolve this in a way that's fair to both sides.

Oh, and fourth: I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not giving you legal advice. If this looks like it's headed toward what you feel is a violation of your intellectual property rights, go chat with a lawyer. It's possible all is will take is for him or her to write a letter to the publisher.

Kaye wrote and said, "I have published four children's books with the same publisher. The books were all written on assignment. Would they be considered impressive to another publisher I want to pitch an idea to? Or do publishers prefer to only hear about books that were not assigned?"

Absolutely, Kaye. Assuming you're listed as the author, it won't matter if the books were assigned or if you came up with the ideas. The fact that you've done four of them should impress publishers.

Jean wrote and noted, "I had submitted a proposal to a publishing house, and they sent me back a 'co-publishing' email in which they basically invite me to pay them to publish my book. They say they'll print it, market it, distribute it, warehouse it, and pay me royalties on it. The cost is about $20,000 for 2000 copies of the book. A good deal?"

Let me get this straight… You sent a proposal to a publisher, and they wrote back to say, "If you give us twenty grand, we'll do your book?" Egad. That's a sure sign that you might want to check into the legitimacy of that publisher. Frankly, I've never had that happen — either as an agent or as an author. Seems like the publishing side is nothing more than a front for a vanity press, which is probably where they really make their money. And I would have serious doubts about them doing much in the way of marketing or sales for your book (there's something to get in writing).

On top of that, you're talking about spending $10 per book with that arrangement. That's higher than you would do with one of the several legitimate vanity press operations. It's even higher than your cost would be if you were to simply use some of the Publish On Demand services that are available. My advice? Walk away. And warn others.

Breanna wants to know about right of first refusal clauses: "I've seen contracts with the right of first refusal on future books, but I'm confused about what that entails for the publisher. How long do they have before they have to give the author an answer on the next proposal? And does a rejection on the next proposal free the author from having to send other books for consideration? What's the standard clause?"

There's not really a "standard" clause — different houses do it different ways. That's why this always gets negotiated. But it's reasonable to think that your publisher, who has made a huge commitment to your career in doing your first book, can ask for a first look at your next book. It's common to negotiate into that first look clause a window of time (something saying the publisher has 90 days to review the next book and make a decision). And yes, if you grant your publisher a firsts look at your next book, once you've shown them your next book, you have probably fulfilled your contractual obligation.

Got a question about writing or publishing? Send it to me and we'll discuss it.

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