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Publisher tries it on...

What’s a book worth?

AN NUJ MEMBER asks me - and I you: "This one is new to me. Anyone had this in the past?" "This" is a case of a book publisher shamelessly trying it on.

She is a writer of non-fiction books, often but not always for young people. One of her publishers wrote to the effect that royalties have been low over the past few years and they expect them to stay low - so they want to offer a generous (sic) £100 for "her rights". She is not sure whether the £100 is for all the books she's written in a series or for each one: she suspects the former.

She is "inclined to say no, unless they would revert my rights to me if they go out of print."

She asked about this on NibWeb, the email discussion list that London Freelance Branch hosts for non-fiction book authors, and was met with a chorus of "hold on to your rights". She mentioned that one of the books in the series she's talking about earned her £250 in permissions for quoting material, so she's prepared to tell the publisher to get lost.

One colleague commented: "If it's worth £100 to them to pay you off, how much do they expect to earn?" An excellent question.

So is the publisher just trying to buy its way out of the hassle of producing royalty statements? Other colleagues who work in the management of book publishing companies say that this is barely any hassle at all, now that it can all be done automatically, more or less, by computer.

I am also concerned that once again systems of payment - flat fees versus royalties - are deliberately being conflated with retention of rights. There is no reason why a flat fee payment must involve ceding all rights. Pretending that there is any link at all in law is a piece of nonsense that the book industry gets away with all the time.

It seems to me that she could easily say, "Fine, give me the lump sum, and when it's used up give me another. But you may not have all rights, and you can get lost with that idea." But I suspect she'll leave it at saying, "Thanks, but no thanks."