Who controls digital rights for media that was released long before those rights were a commodity? That’s something the music, film, and TV businesses have been defining over recent years, and now it’s entering the world of book publishing. With Amazon’s Wireless Kindle an exceedingly valuable product, and a line of competitive e-readers entering the market, the question is becoming important. In The New York Times, Motoko Rich explores some new battles over the ability to distribute classic books for digital audiences:
Backlist titles, which continue to be reprinted long after their initial release, are crucial to publishing houses because of their promise of lucrative revenue year after year. But authors and agents are particularly concerned that traditional publishers are not offering sufficient royalties on e-book editions, which they point out are cheaper for publishers to produce. Some are considering taking their digital rights elsewhere, which could deal a financial blow to the hobbled publishing industry.
The tussle over who owns the electronic rights — and how much the authors should earn in digital royalties — potentially puts into play works by authors like Ralph Ellison and John Updike.
Some publishers have already made agreements with authors or their estates to release digital editions. All of Ernest Hemingway’s books, for example, are available in electronic versions from his print publisher, Scribner, a unit of Simon & Schuster.
But with only a small fraction of the thousands of books in print available in e-book form, there are many titles to be fought over.