Tomorrow’s Book Contract

Jane FriedmanBy Jane Friedman, Publisher & Editorial Director, Writer’s Digest

Agents were breaking out their calculators at the 2010 Digital Book World Conference, discussing the nitty-gritty of future book deals during the very nuts-and-bolts panel, “Tomorrow’s Book Contracts,” moderated by agent Richard Curtis.

[NOTE: DBW Members can access the full audio of this session here.]

Curtis organized the panel by asking each agent to propose a provision or revision to future book contracts. Here’s what the agents presented:


A longtime bramble bush for agents and publishers, territory rights is once again rearing its ugly and thorny head as e-book devices and digital formats raise many territorial questions that come with few answers.

Agent Devereux Chatillon led a discussion of the territories problem, and conceded that, first and foremost, “You have to give the consumer what the consumer wants in the format they want it in and when they want it. If you don’t, you run into risks of lost sales, piracy, and also losing the consumer not just to other books but to other entertainment.”

But territory rights issues can get in the way of serving readers. (And it already is!) There was no clear solution to this problem, but Chatillon recommended globally coordinated publication dates. Simon Lipskar mentioned that one of the proposals is that all open market rights for digital editions go to the U.S.—though “that would make UK publishers vomit up their breakfasts.”

E-book Rights

What form is an e-book going to take in the future? How far do the edges of that idea extend? Publishers are now looking to keep rights to digital adaptations, which is broad and raises a lot of questions—does this include dramatic rights too? Video game rights? Right now, no one really knows what form e-book adaptations might take, or what they are worth.

Agent Miriam Kriss recommended that agents allow for digital verbatim rights, but always strike through digital adaptations to the material. Kriss said, “As innocent as it might sound, it could kill a movie deal or conflict with other deals.” For instance, what happens when a book trailer becomes very close to something that is like a movie or a movie trailer?

Bottom line, there are many gray areas as books become “enhanced.”

Royalties for Kindle

Simon Lipskar presented a series of royalty calculations in an attempt to identify a fair e-book royalty percentage for authors, especially for books on Amazon’s Kindle, since that will likely be the No. 1 retailer of e-books for the foreseeable future.

A major factor in his scenarios hinged on whether publishers switch to an agency model rather than keeping the current pricing and distribution model.

Lipskar recommended basing e-book royalties on the publisher’s price before commission, but had to acknowledge, “At the end of the day, we all need to accept, all of us, is that we don’t know. Google is coming, Apple is coming. We don’t know what these economics look like.”

The Difficulty of Today’s Book P/L

There’s been significant speculation industry-wide about whether publishers will sign a book without having e-book rights. The general feeling of the agents on the panel was that publishers don’t want to give up e-book rights because no one can run a book P/L accurately if they can’t predict or control the e-book price or measure its impact on print book sales.

Lipskar commented, “Splitting the rights sounds tasty, but that would push down the e-book price since that rights holder has no stake in the print version of the book. There are economic consequences to these decisions (rights splitting). Publishers aren’t objecting simply because they want the rights.”

The Water’s Just Fine—Come On In!

If agent John Schline had a contract provision to propose, it was overshadowed by the many other things he had to say, which were contrary to the industry’s prevailing sky-is-falling attitude. He feels the current models are doing exactly what they were intended to do: Foster the creation of new works.

Schline said, “Publishing is fine. The books are great. There might be a crisis in retailing. There might be a short attention span. But I think that the books that are being published are great. We should keep in mind that it’s in all of our interests to protect the ability of someone spending 3, 5, 10 years to write a book.”

Jane Friedman is the publisher and editorial director of the Writer’s Digest brand community, where she oversees Writer’s Digest magazine, Writer’s Digest Books, and the Writer’s Market series.

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