Electric Book Works Web, mobile and print publications

Rights and royalty decisions

If I asked you whether you had electronic rights to your books, I know that in your mind you probably have an image of bulging filing cabinets of paper. You can hear the voice of an irate author on the phone, and despair at the cost of the lawyers you’ll need to draft new contract amendments. And if you’re one of the lucky publishers who, for most of the last ten years, has included sweeping claims to your authors’ electronic rights, you have a gnawing suspicion that the only contracts that don’t include such claims are the ones with difficult authors who made you take them out. Precisely the ones you don’t want to annoy. And the only way you’re going to know who they are is go through every contract, one by one.

It’s a nightmare.

So here’s a bold, practical suggestion. This is not the view of a lawyer. This is the view of someone who likes to get things done.

  1. Do not go through every contract. Ebooks of backlist titles are never going to be profitable enough to make that worthwhile. Make a blanket decision for all of the books you might ever digitise (or let someone else digitise, like Google Books), and tell the authors what it is.

  2. If an author objects, tell them that’s fine, and you won’t sell their book electronically for now. Explain that once you’re done getting everyone else’s ebooks to market, you’ll get back to them about negotiating an electronic rights agreement. Unless they are your biggest, best-selling author, their ebook is not worth your time.

  3. Help authors understand why you’re doing this. Be honest that you have to handle ebooks en masse to make them worth doing at all. If you like, invite authors to attend presentations on ebooks by in-house or independent experts. Basically, make good-faith gestures that cost less than talking to each author, poring over their contracts individually, or hiring lawyers.

These suggestions do not cover permissions for third-party content, like poems or images, for which you paid a flat fee for particular distribution terms (e.g. 5000 paperback copies for South African schools). They apply to royalty-earning authors who have something to gain from ebook sales. My suggestion for backlist titles with complex permissions? Make a note to come back to them later (probably much later). In the meantime, let Google Books scan and index them, and put a link on Google Books to where people can buy the print edition.

Note: We’re not going to discuss Google Books in this course, except to say that you should take the time to know about the Google service, and how you can use any of three key services it provides: free digitisation (low quality, for books you want available but don’t want to spend money on); indexing (so that people can find the book by its text but not read it), and sales (Google Editions will operate like an ebookstore).


To date, most ebook distributors let you determine which territories your ebooks will sell into. Of course, try to get world rights in any negotiations. (This also offers the opportunity to create territory-based pricing strategies, such as low-priced editions for developing countries.) … Read more


This is a contentious area. Many authors think ebook royalties should be higher, since the publisher is saving on production and distribution costs. Publishers know things are often more complicated than that, and that they may be forced to pass any savings on to consumers, under pressure from large retailers. … Read more

Arthur Attwell 16 April 2010
This information is more than two years old, and may no longer be accurate. Contact us to check, or log an issue on GitHub.