On Publishing Conflicts

The thirty-fourth day of #stayathome was spent mostly focused on copyright issues surrounding a successfully defended dissertation. The good news is that the dissertation was not only an academic success but was already under contract with a university press. The bad news was that the university press used a terrible boilerplate contract and the dissertation had received incorrect information from university personnel. (This happened prior to me coming on board as chair of the dissertation.)

This has resulted in something of an impasse: the press claims complete copyright for the manuscript and the university requires that the manuscript be submitted to ProQuest. Now the rules of ProQuest are that copyright remain with the author, but ProQuest still offers the option of buying a copy of the submitted manuscript, so they are in fact able to make copies. A ten-year embargo is possible, but it’s not clear if the university press is likely to budge. The university uses ProQuest because as a public university it feels that knowledge created here should be publicly available. The mandate comes down to a sentence in one document and a sentence in another.

The big picture is easy: the university’s mandate is to make public the knowledge it produces. In being published as a book, the dissertation accomplishes that and more: it will be more widely available, and at a cheaper price, than it would in ProQuest. The publisher’s mandate is to maximize the profitability of publishing this book. This can be accomplished by the ProQuest embargo — surely, the principal profit in the book will be in its first ten years!

The takeaways are many:

  1. For dissertators: read all the fine print at your institution. Do not depend on anyone’s advice unless they are, one, in a position to give it, and, two, they give it to you in writing.
  2. For all dissertations, and really all academic authors: read the contract. (More on this below.)
  3. For university presses: revise your contracts to be human.

In addition to the inflexible guidelines maintained by the university, there is the inflexibility of the contract. The particular press here is not alone. I’ve seen similar language in other contracts, and, indeed, when the press that published The Amazing Crawfish Boat first sent me a contract, it looked like this. Here’s the thing: I revised the contract, sent it back, and they were fine with the revisions. Here are the revisions I would suggest:

  • Copyright: Depending upon the severity of the contract, most presses want the copyright to your book. Some will recognize that there’s a span of time, but many will not or they will use the fuzziest of notions: that they maintain copyright “so long as the book remains in print.” Here’s the thing: in the digital era, books remain in print forever. The cost of maintaining an ebook approaches zero, and with print-on-demand, a publisher need not keep inventory of a book. I recommend you strike this out and change this to a flat “ten years or when the book goes out of print, whichever comes first.”
  • Derivative Works: Publishers like to act like they are going to do all kinds of things, but they aren’t. They are going to publish the book. Unless they have committed to publishing an audiobook version, then you should maintain that right. Also, if you plan to publish follow-on work or companion works, which should actually help to drive sales of the original, be sure to maintain that right. (The changes in wording here will depend on the contract.)
  • Subsidiary Rights: I think it’s fair to allow a publisher to keep whatever percentage, usually it’s half (50%), of the proceeds of subsequent print versions of the book, but I would cross out the clause involving other adaptations (video, audio, whatever). Also, the clause that says something like “we get half of net proceeds from anything not specifically set out in this paragraph”? Cross that out, too.

As you can probably tell, much of this language is drawn from industry presses and university presses have simply adopted it whole cloth because, in being oppressive, it works entirely in their favor. In my experience, having a conversation is pretty easy: common sense works here. Too many academic authors, especially first-time authors, are so excited about their book getting published or so worried that should they ask a question or request a change in the contract that the publisher is going to suddenly change their mind about publishing the book. No sensible press would: they have invested time and energy in lining up the manuscript for their press. They are not going to suddenly throw up their hands and yell: “That’s it! We’re out!” They are simply going to say “No.”

What you rights you are comfortable giving to them and for how long and with how much of the possible revenue … well, that’s ultimately a decision you alone can make. All I am suggesting is that you think about it, at least some, before signing your name.