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Fees and rights in non-fiction publishing

A FEW weeks ago, a children's non-fiction writer reported a twitter exchange with the novelist Joanne Harris (Chocolat). Ms Harris, rightly campaigning for authors to retain copyright, was suggesting that authors who signed away their copyright made things difficult for those who did not.

Being told this was somewhat distressing for many writers – who frequently find they have no choice over this.

There are areas of book publishing – notably children's (and some adult) illustrated non-fiction - in which the standard contract offers a one-off fee for the work (rather than an advance and subsequent royalties), in exchange for all rights, including a waiver of moral rights.

The system is entrenched - some publishers, or at least some imprints - never work any other way. Authors see it as inevitable. Refuse to sell the rights: you lose the job.

And after all, a fee - often slightly higher than an advance – can be preferable to the "jam tomorrow" of royalties. For "jam" read bread and butter, too.

But does a fee have to mean signing away all rights and losing control of your work for evermore (including any further payment that might, by chance, come your way)? Does it have to mean allowing your work to suffer the "derogatory treatment" that moral rights are supposed to protect you from?

Actually, the answer is "no".

But challenge a publisher about rights, and the immediate response is often, "We always pay a flat fee."

Which is no answer at all. It's perfectly possible to disentangle the two issues: to pay an author a single fee, and let him or her keep copyright and moral rights. It's even occasionally been done.

At the very least, keeping copyright would help circumvent the slightly complex situation with ALCS payments for secondary uses (currently authors do get these, but it's a hazy area). And there are cases of authors wanting to reuse a text that has been out of print for years, but cannot get permission to use their own work.

It's surely a matter of principle. We want to know how our words are used and where. And it's hard to see why the method of payment has to impinge on that basic right that authors paid in a different way are allowed to retain.

What to do?

Immediately, we should join with other writers' organisations to put a stop to this - educating publishers and authors to understand they aren’t obliged to work this way.

And secondly - let's campaign to get the law changed, so rights grabbing just isn't legal. It isn't in many other countries – so why here?

Perhaps, now, with a big name like Ms Harris on board, we can get somewhere with this.