Ebooks are indebted to the original publishers, says president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Jimages.jpegonathan Galassi, president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, has an Op Ed piece in the New York Times today arguing that publishers give a huge amount of value-added to books and that ebooks are taking advantage of this. He concludes that ebooks are simply the latest editions of books already produced by publishers, and not a fresh version of the author’s work. He takes as an example the recent issuing of William Styron’s work in electronic form by Open Road Integrated Media, when the original books were issued by Random House.

He posits that the editors, publicity department, copy editors, designers rights department, etc. of Random House all contributed to Styron’s success:

The author’s heirs hold the copyright to his work. But should another company be able to issue e-book versions of Random House’s editions without its involvement? An e-book version of Mr. Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner” will contain more than the author’s original words. It will also comprise Mr. Loomis’s editing, as well as all the labor of copy editing, designing and producing, not to mention marketing and sales, that went into making it a desirable candidate for e-book distribution. Mr. Styron’s books took the form they have, are what they are today, not only because of his remarkable genius but also, as he himself acknowledged, because of the dedicated work of those at Random House.

8 Comments on Ebooks are indebted to the original publishers, says president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux

  1. Oh come on. If we take that argument to its logical extreme, authors shouldn’t be able to republish their books with other publishers after the original ones lose or give up the rights, because of all the work that the original publisher put into the manuscript.

    Authors have the right to republish their works anywhere and any time they like that is not contractually reserved to some other company. This is why magazine publishers tend to contract for exclusive rights (for a set period of time), rather than just buying the right to print the story.

  2. About time the BPH’s realized their proper role in the publishing supply chain.
    Now if they would actually start *doing* those things they claim to do and stopped shipping barely-proofed books and started hiring back the editors and proof-readers and slush-pile sifters they let go over the last twenty years their claims of added value might even be true.

  3. And digital music to the recording studios and original publishers.. etc.. etc.. etc..

    Why are publishers so scared of ebooks? Weren’t they paid by the success of the “original” books? Weren’t all those costs factored in when they produced and sold the “original” books?

  4. An interesting contrast with Mr. Galassi’s we-own-everything attitude is an online co-op called Closed Circle (www.closed-circle.net). It was created by veteran authors CJ Cherryh, Jane Fancher, and Lynn Abbey to publish and distribute their orphaned works as DRM-free ebooks: “We’re rescuing our kids as fast as we can get the rights back, scan and edit them for all the typos put in by New York, and give them a new look.”

  5. Alan Wallcraft // January 3, 2010 at 3:45 pm //

    The US copyright of most books since 1978 revert to the author by giving notice after 35 years. So publishers know up front that they only have 35 years to extract revenue from the work.

    The Confessions of Nat Turner was released in 1967, so Random House has had 40+ years to produce an ebook. If they had issued one (say) 10 years ago it is likely that William Styron would have agreed to them doing so. Random house simply woke up to the ebook too late.

  6. I’ve always wondered about this myself. I spend dozens or hundreds of hours with each book I publish, attempting to make it as strong as possible, correcting errors in spelling, continuity, logic, and bringing story issues to the author’s attention. Does this give me some inherent right to the manuscript? I think the answer is, the rights I have are spelled out in my author contract. I enter into the contract knowing what I am getting and giving. Still, it’s certainly the case that secondary publications get a free ride on the editorial work of the original publisher. This is why some original publishers ask for some share of the royalties for, e.g., international sales.

    Rob Preece

  7. Of course Random House added to the value of the original book. No sane person is arguing otherwise. But thinking that Random House should somehow have rights to be involved now (And I’m assuming whatever contract they had doesn’t cover future unknown book formats, such as ebooks) is crazy.

    Imagine if you own a gold mine. I offer you $10 million for it. $10 million is a fair price, you think, so you sell it to me. The next day, someone discovers a cure for cancer using gold. Suddenly, the mine is worth $100 million. Should you get a cut of the $990 million you missed out on?

    Of course not. You got paid a fair price for your mine. It’s too bad you didn’t anticipate the discovery, but that’s life.

    One assumes that Random House has already been compensated for their investment. And if not, then perhaps it was a bad investment. Publishers make bad investments every day. That’s no reason to hand them charity now.

  8. And Rob, if 40 years from now you are still in business and some new book form arises, your authors would be welcome to negotiate with you for those editions, and if you treated them well, there is every indication they would want to, right? :)

    This editor acts like Random House is some injured party here. They did not foresee these rights when they signed on Mr. Styron, so they did not negotiate for them. And when the time came to do so, someone else gave this author a better deal. If they were so hell-bent on publishing these books as ebooks, they should have given the author’s representatives a deal that worked for all parties.

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