December 14th, 2009

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Is Random House the alpha male of the publishing pack?

Technology offers us many good things. This Thursday my daughter will fly home from Arizona in less than a day. When we pick her up at the airport, my husband will have his cell phone in his pocket when he dives into the bowels of BWI to hunt for her, while I will have my own phone in the car— and my daughter will have yet a third phone. My sister has two brand new knees that work much better than the ones she had replaced.

But sometimes technology makes things complicated. Book contracts used to cover things like royalty rates for hardback versus paperback, and the definition of out-of-print. The emergence of books in digital form, either as ebooks or as POD books, makes a lot of those contracts abruptly outdated. Random House isn't waiting for anyone to pass new laws; they've announced a preemptive strike by declaring that because their default book contracts give them exclusive rights to publish in book form, they therefore own rights to publish most of their backlist titles as ebooks. Agents Richard Curtis and Kristin Nelson have weighed in with their view of RH's actions: Nelson called them brazen and Curtis likens them to a wolf marking his territory— not terribly polite when you consider how a wolf marks territory, but what the hey.

If you think about it, RH is declaring that a book is a book, whether in print form or digital. I can actually agree with that sentiment, except I don't see it as belonging in a contract that spells out royalties based on formats and doesn't specifically say "digital format." Of course, I'm also not familiar with RH's standard wording. They are promising to produce the ebooks with the same care and attention that they pay to print books, which would be a nice change for ebooks.

Considering how publishers are always lambasting Amazon for being greedy, RH seems to have its own fondness for all the revenue it can grab. As my nephew used to say in such situations, "Pot 1 to kettle 2, you're black."

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