I know there are authors out there who are dead set against traditional publishing, although that's where they got their start. They're anti-big publishing and anti-agent. I don't normally follow their blogs, but I followed a link to one today. A certain such author is making some pretty big claims about terms in traditional publishing house contracts.
The claim that is causing me pause is: the non-negotiable life-of-copyright clauses that have no or limited reversion clauses. They claim that publishers will own an author's work until copyright runs out, and that there is (or soon will be) no way to get that ownership back. They also claim that the author has no choice in the matter if they want to be published by a traditional publisher.
Are you seeing contracts like this? How do you deal with them? As I understand it, this is the sort of pitfall that agents can protect us from.
This is a case of the blowhard using one piece of information without context.
Yes, most publishing contracts run for the life of the copyright. Here's the Writer's Union on that point:
The customary practice in the United States is to allow the primary publisher to retain exclusive publishing rights for the duration of the work's copyright term (which is currently 70 years from the author's death), as long as the work is kept in print. Sometimes the rights continue even after the primary edition is out of print, if a subsidiary edition is still being sold. See Section IX on termination.
(Side note: subsidiary rights contracts do NOT run for the life of the copyright)
This grant of rights is listed very early in the contract. It's not the only part of the contract. There are pages and pages after that grant, and several of them cover how the contract can be terminated and rights reverted.
First and foremost is the out of print clause. The contract specifies how many books have to be sold, and in what time frame for a book to remain in print. If the book fails to meet that threshold, rights can be reverted upon request.
Second is failure to publish at all. If the publisher doesn't publish the book within a certain time frame, rights revert to the author.
Third is failure to pay or account for royalties. Failure to do so is breach of contract and rights revert to the author.
It's entirely possible to be offered a contract with none of these reversion avenues. Any agent worth his/her salt will negotiate ALL of them in to the contract.
If a client of mine had such a contract offer, and the publisher would not agree to include ALL these clauses, I would advise the client to think long and hard about signing.
About the underlying assumption of the blowhard: I'm still confounded by advocates of self-publishing who feel the need to trash traditional publishing. This isn't an either/or situation with no do-overs. Many authors now have traditional deals, and self-publish. There are advantages and disadvantages to both avenues. One is not holy, the other is not foul.
In addition, the idea of setting up a straw man to make a point about the "evils" of traditional publishing is just plain stupid. There are LOTS of things that traditional publishing doesn't do well. If you can't think of any, come to my office at Happy Hour. We have several agents here who will be glad to enlighten you about the frustrations they've experienced that very day.
I'm more than willing to listen to people who have well-reasoned and well-informed criticisms of traditional publishing. That other stuff? Not so much.