Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Buying the ebook rights - in 1971

Forty-three years ago, Jean Craighead George signed a contract with Harper Collins for her book, Julie of the Wolves. She got a $2,000 dollar advance and standard royalties. It sold well - over 3.8 million copies, and it's still selling.

In 2011, the author published the ebook version with Open Road. She wanted to e-publish with Harper Collins, but they wouldn't match the 50% royalty offered by Open Road. They preferred to sue, arguing that clauses in the 1971 contract gave them the rights to the ebook. A judge has now found in favour of Harper Collins. Jean Craighead George died during the litigation.

What was the clause in the contract that tied in rights to a form of book not to be invented for many decades? It was a combination of a standard subsidiary rights grant and the following:

HarperCollins shall grant no license without the prior written consent of the Author… including uses in storage and retrieval and information systems, and/or whether through computer, computer-stored, mechanical or other electronic means now known or hereafter invented

Two conclusions can be drawn from this.
  1. There is no end to the shameless rapacity of Harper Collins (and the rest of Big Publishing). Here they cheerfully sued an author in her nineties who had made them millions.

  2. Do not trust a professional to draw up a contract for you. Read and make sure you understand the implications of every word yourself, because you are the person signing the contract, and you will be bound by it.
For more on this story, see Publishers Weekly.


  1. That is just wrong on every level.

  2. Yes. Every story I hear about Harper Collins makes me think worse of them. I can't imagine what they'll be up to next.

  3. What amazes me is how little difference stories like this make. There are still a huge number of writers eager to sign any contract a publisher offers them, handing over all rights, effectively in perpetuity, for a small sum.

    Some writers should know better, others are just too naive and trusting.

  4. Children, most, are either born trusting or learn to trust - they need to. As we grow older that trust can be shattered sooner or later, or maybe slowly strangled. Some of us listen to a politician's speech and believe it. If you are over 40, I expect you were taught that you could always trust a policeman if you needed help. Most of Lexi's blog's readers probably evaluate words and situations more carefully these days.

    I lived in a part of the world where corruption was rampant. It's awful. But it made me more wary of those I thought I ought to be able to trust.

    Large corporations are tied to making money fast or being held to account by shareholders or being bought out by some big shark. The abandonment of moral values is one of the sacrifices big companies think they must make. There are few brands I still trust. Publishing houses do not fall into this category! I don't even trust their initial readers to read the manuscripts they are sent.

    Thanks for keeping us on watch, Lexi.

  5. I think you can still trust a policeman if you need help. The problem is finding one, these days.

  6. Yes, I'd still trust a policeman if I needed help. I've met some wonderful ones. But I'll borrow your phrase and add a negative. I'm not now quite so naive and trusting in general and that would probably help if I ever had sight of a publishing contract - probably not mine!