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In familiar books, a battle over electronic rights

William Styron may have been one of the leading literary lions of recent decades, but his books are not selling much these days. Now his family has a plan to lure digital-age readers with e-book versions of titles like “Sophie’s Choice,” “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and Styron’s memoir of depression, “Darkness Visible.”

But the question of exactly who owns the electronic rights to such older titles is in dispute, making it a rising source of conflict in one of the publishing industry’s last remaining areas of growth.

Styron’s family believes it retains the rights, since the books were first published before e-books existed. Random House, Styron’s long time publisher, says it owns those rights, and it is determined to secure its place — and continuing profits — in the Kindle era.

The discussions about the digital fate of Styron’s work are similar to the negotiations playing out across the book industry as publishers hustle to capture the rights to release e-book versions of so-called backlist books. Indeed, the same new e-book venture Styron’s family hopes to use has run into similar resistance from the print publisher of “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller.

On Friday, Markus Dohle, chief executive of Random House, sent a letter to dozens of literary agents, writing that the company’s older agreements gave it “the exclusive right to publish in electronic book publishing formats.”

Backlist titles, which continue to be reprinted long after their initial release, are crucial to publishing houses because of their promise of 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.

“This is a wide-open frontier right now,” said Maja Thomas, senior vice-president for digital and audio publishing at the Hachette Book Group.

And with electronic readers like the Kindle from Amazon and the Nook from Barnes & Noble attracting new readers and sales of e-books growing exponentially, authors and publishers are trying to figure out how best to harness the new technology.

New ventures focusing explicitly on e-books are cropping up regularly. Some offer authors better financial terms than the traditional publishers, raising the tension over who should publish the books digitally.

In the case of Styron, who died in 2006 at age 81, the eight titles his family wants to re-release as e-books were published in print before 1994. This fall, Styron’s estate reached an agreement with a new company, Open Road Integrated Media, founded by Jane Friedman, the former chief executive of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide, and Jeffrey Sharp, a film producer.

In October, Open Road announced that it would produce e-books of Styron’s work, along with several older titles by Pat Conroy and Iris Murdoch.

Alexandra Styron, 43, Styron’s daughter, said her family liked that a company “focused on the idea of the future of the book industry wanted to make my father’s books an important part of their plan to bring old and long-gone authors into the 21st century.” Styron said her family was happy with the job Random House, and their father’s editor, Robert Loomis, had done for Styron’s work in the print world. But with e-books, she said, “we didn’t feel that we were getting any similar kind of full-court press from Random House.”

In his letter on Friday, Dohle said that authors were precluded “from granting publishing rights to third parties.” Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, said the company expected to “continue to publish the Styron books we own in all formats, including e-books.” © 2009 The New York Times News Service

A rising source of conflict in one of the publishing industry’s last remaining areas of growth.

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Printable version | Oct 1, 2020 6:28:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/In-familiar-books-a-battle-over-electronic-rights/article16853154.ece

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