Who's got your book?

Am I harping on this? Maybe so, but Kris Rusch had a post on contracts today that brought up something that I think some writers still may not be clear on, which is that publishing traditionally nowadays is actually a pretty risky thing to do.

Rusch notes that an anonymous editor wrote to her:

[R]ights sold to a publisher now could end up—anywhere. Most contracts have very broad language allowing the publisher to sell a book how they want to and at a price they want to. And with Amazon entering the publisher market (and I don’t think it’s impossible to think Google or Apple might as well), there’s no telling if five or ten years down the line an author’s book might wind up being sold, or offered for free, in a way they never anticipated or intended.

I think authors still think that if they sell a book to the publisher, the publisher will follow the traditional path publishing. And even if that is the acquiring editor’s intent, and the publisher’s intent, things are changing so fast now, there’s no guarantee of anything.

This is the thing about publishing that outsiders don't always understand: It is an extremely volatile industry. It was when I started working in it 20 years ago; it's even more chaotic now. Imprints and publishing houses change hands all the time--every single publishing house (every single one) I worked at either had been sold recently, attempted to negotiate a sale, or was sold during the time I worked there.

What that means is that Rock Solid Traditional House can suddenly become a division of New Technology Company, or Gordon Gekko can buy it and sell it for parts, or it can become Paris Hilton's new toy. Its entire mission and business strategy can change overnight, and any title that doesn't fit into the new strategy (proven winners!) can be effectively scrapped.

That rock solid house can also suddenly become a company you don't want to work for. Look at Penguin, for God's sake--it just became the nation's largest vanity press. (ETA: Oh, and look! Barnes & Noble has jumped onto the vanity press bandwagon!)

What can you do if you've signed over your rights to a company that suddenly turns into a very different kind of firm? What if they're no longer reputable? What if they want to do something with your book and your name that you think will harm your career? What if they decide that your kind of book isn't the kind of book they actually want to carry, but they don't want to return your rights to you or sell the contract to someone else, because that would be work?

Nothing, that's what you can do. I mean, sure, you can go to court and try to get out of the contract. You can kick and cry and scream. It's expensive, it takes a long time, and you might not like what you get, but you can feel like you've done something.

Or you can stay out of it. Hold on to your rights yourself. Be extremely judicious about signing any rights away, because you might not like what happens to them, and you might not get them back.