Are writers back in control? The electronic rights challenge

About two years ago I received an email from a former student who had stumbled upon one of my books – online.  The book was not published as an e-book.  Far from it.  In fact, when it was published in 2003, no one was even considering anything but the hold-in-your-hands, paper-between-covers kind of book.  However, it was a professional reference handbook that had continued to sell in dribs and drabs so was evidently still useful.  My student posed this question: Was I aware that it was available electronically through Questia?  I most assuredly was not.

The book I sold to a ‘traditional’ publisher after publishing the first edition myself. Then the publisher made it available on Questia without my knowledge.

I contacted the publisher (a large American textbook publisher that had since been acquired by a yet larger American textbook publisher) to try to find out how it got there, and why I wasn’t being compensated for its online use.  I got exactly nowhere.  And this is the story that came to my mind this morning as I read Simon Houpt’s article in the Globe and Mail.  He tells the story of the new e-book about (God forbid that we should need to know any more about her) Karla Homolka, accessory to brutal rape and murder a few years back.

Houpt describes the 14,000-word book Finding Karla that author and journalist Paula Todd decided to release as an e-book last week for a variety of reasons – the primary one was that since she found Homolka alive and well and living in Guadaloupe, she feared the story might be scooped by others on her trail.  Add onto this the idea that 14,000 words is more than a magazine feature and less than a “real” book and you have a writer seeking a new publishing model.  And no editor standing in front of you saying that 14,000 words are not enough.  Evidently readers beg to differ with those editors.

What’s interesting about this story is not the content of Todd’s book; rather it’s the story of how publishing models are changing.  I’ve talked about this previously, trying to figure out where all of this is heading.  But Houpt make an interestingly provocative observation of what might be happening: “…for the first time in decades, some of the power in publishing is shifting back to writers, who are trying to grab the electronic rights that publishers have been taking for granted…[1]

It’s these electronic rights and the on-going difficulty we have with publishers who seem to think they have the right to be the sole beneficiaries of the material that we slaved over.  Of course, these days a contract is likely to contain reference to electronic usage (I await my contract from the University of Toronto Press as we speak and I’ll be looking for a fair division of rights), but it still seems that unless we take matters into our own hands, we are the last ones to be paid – rather than the first.

I still haven’t figured out what to do with things I’m working on – apart from the final revisions on the UTP manuscript.  Will I dive back into the traditional publishing model; or will I go right to Kindle?  I’m thinking about it!

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2 thoughts on “Are writers back in control? The electronic rights challenge

    1. Thanks for weighing in, David. It certainly is a whole new game for writers — or maybe it’s a return to the ‘old days.’ There was a time when publishing your own work was really the only way to go (and I mean way back in history!). It’s always frustrating to go the traditional route and find that you, the writer, still have to be the copy-editor, marketing guru and PR consultant — often none of which are strong points for writers. We certainly do need to consider a new way of thinking.

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