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The End of the World as They Know It

For publishers, the end of the world won’t fall on December 21 – that’s the day of wrath, or whatever, according to predictions from the Mayan Doomsday Prophecy, the end of the 5,125-year-long Mesoamerican Long Count calendar. No, for publishers the world may end shortly after that, in 2013.

Next year is when Section 203 of the 1978 Copyright Act will allow authors to after 25 years to break from a contract that assigned copyright to their work. This might not seem that big a deal, but it is. Publishers make the bulk of their money from long-selling back-lists (older titles that continue to do well in the market). And among the big names with continuing sales are Stephen King, Judy Blume and John LeCarré, among a host of others. Imagine what will happen if these renowned writers renegotiate their contracts on such modern popular classics as Salem’s Lot, contracts created before the days of digital rights. Or what if, horrors, these writers decide to self-publish their still-popular books?

Of course, some of these authors have already renegotiated rights, based on contracts for new books. But not everyone has.

I don’t know the specifics about when any contracts were renegotiated. But think of what may happen if Ken Follett decides to play hardball with The Eye of the Needle, or the J.R.R. Tolkien estate wants to renegotiate The Silmarillion, or works by Herman Wouk, James Michener and Mario Puzo are up for renegotiation. Each of these writers had bestsellers in 1978. And they or their estates are probably most likely considering how best to get a better deal for the content they wrote, and that has a proven track record, assuming they haven’t already renegotiated – and if they have, did this renegotiation include digital rights? That’s a sticky issue.

Publishers are still grappling with how best to navigate the digital world. It’s more than pricing (publishers would like to charge much more than many readers and even a lot of writers would wish). There are areas of loaning, sales to libraries, and more.

Legal issues regarding rights are always confusing, and the previsions regarding copyright are likely to lead to a lot of legal tangles.

These problems are not yours, of course, at least not yet, since you’re probably in the process of building a platform for your ideas in order to grow your audience in this current digital age. But the news is just another sign of continuing turmoil in the publishing field. Best for you to continue doing what you do – engaging with your audience, refining your ideas and creating work that can be published in book form to build your business. That book may very likely be digital rather than paper-and-cardboard, and you may decide to publish it yourself.

In any event, it’s a brave new world.

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