The Yellow Light Reversion Clause

The economics of book publishing have shifted and will never be the same. Both the physical book, with print-on-demand, and the e-bo0k, with its infinite supply, have created a world where the written word is forever available for commercial transaction. Hundreds of years from now, anything written today will still be available for sale. At that point, of course, the works will be in the public domain. But what to do until then?

The current book contract in all its lovely boilerplate no longer makes sense in light of a work’s permanence. Such contracts are an outdated mechanism. New contracts are needed. Authors will still care about their works decades down the road in ways that publishers most likely won’t. Many publishers view backlist as competition to frontlist. Dusty tomes do battle with the shiny and new. If the purpose of publishing is to blow out the release and hit the grail of lists—The New York Times—then lowering the cost or in any way promoting a decades-old story can only harm this goal. The beloved author today becomes the pariah of tomorrow.

Reversion clauses are meant to protect the author’s interest by assuring the work will return to them once it has sufficiently withered on the vine. But these terms are ludicrous and growing more so. I’ve seen contracts where a work remains with the publisher so long as it sells 100 copies in two reporting periods. That’s 100 copies in a full calendar year. A publisher could order that many e-books for themselves at the last moment and retain rights to a work until the author dies, and then another 70 years after.

Again, these injustices meant little when a book had a three-month lifespan on a bookstore shelf before going out of print. The same terms are a slap across the face today. And while I believe hard limits on the terms of license are inevitable for the publishing industry (say, five or seven years), such a shift is likely too bold to take place all at once. Which leaves us at an impasse. And so why not make up an entirely new clause for book contracts?

For an industry not used to modifying boilerplate, this may seem extreme. Even heretical. I point to the United States Constitution and its many wonderful amendments (and some shameful) as precedent. What if instead of a hard limit or a set date, publishing contracts had a Yellow Light reversion period. It might go something like this (with added legalese, of course):

  • If the work in question does not sell 1,000 copies in a single reporting period of six months, the author is granted the right to set the price of the work and to request and approve of a change in cover art. If the work does not sell 1,000 copies in the following reporting period of six months, the rights revert completely to the author.
  • The publisher must also approve of the cover art, and the price of the work cannot be raised so as to reduce the work’s chances of meeting this sales threshold.

The point of the clause is to give the publisher a chance to revamp the work or invest in its promotion. Any publisher confident of its ability to increase sales should be willing to sign a contract containing such a clause. As publishers get more accustomed to promoting digital and POD works, this should be a non-issue. (For a publisher with direct access to merchandising opportunities like Amazon, this sort of clause would be a no-brainer). Agents and publishers would of course negotiate the exact sales threshold. 1,000 copies in six months might be far too low. (And let’s hope that before long, six months would be equal to six reporting periods).

There are other ways to concoct such a clause, all meant to give the publisher time to steer the work back toward readers. It should make fairer reversion clauses more palatable to publishing houses. And it will give authors and agents peace of mind that their work will either continue to perform, or revert back to those who care most to see that it does.

15 responses to “The Yellow Light Reversion Clause”

  1. These and the other articles on publishing have given me much foo for thought, and have provided an insight into an independent author’s view on publishing who isn’t Konrath (I like him by the way). My problem with POD books is that they are all published in the large 23×15 cm size (sorry, I’m from the UK so do metric), which is too big for me. The biggest paperback size I’m comfortable with is 12×19 cm, which is smaller that the current POD books, but bigger than mass market paperbacks. What I would really love is if POD books were available in the 12×19 cm size, or even better, mass market paperback size. I was wondering what you thought, and if you knew of any moves towards smaller sizes.

    1. CreateSpace has a 5 inch x 8 inch option, which is 12.7 cm x 20cm, and so not too far away. Most of my POD paperbacks are 5×8. It reminds me of the mass market. I’d love for them to get this trim size down a little more and offer thinner paper to handle thickness for 300+ page novels.

    2. Gaz,

      Do a search on YouTube for the “Espresso Book Machine” to see how POD books are made.

      The process is reprographic, i.e. copying, rather than offset printing.

      They print on regular letter size paper, double sided. Then glue, cover, and cut the book to size. That’s why the cost of each “page” is the same. No matter what trim size you choose, 300 pages cost the same.

      It took me awhile to wrap my head around the fact that they cut away huge chunks of paper to make the final book.

      I try to keep the books between 300 and 433 pages so that I can have a valid spine for printing. If the book starts going larger than 433 pages, I make the trim size larger. I start at 5×8 trim size, up to 7.5×9.25. If you double column a 7.5×9.25 size page, with Garamond 10, it will hold 281k to 405k, in the 300 to 433 page range, without kicking the cost up.

      BTW, 7.5×9.25 is about the size of _The Idiot’s Guide to…_ books.

    3. Jonathan Jacobsen Avatar
      Jonathan Jacobsen

      Depending on who you want to handle it, POD can be produced in sizes as small as ~ 4 X 6 – One-off. The size is called a pocket book, but it is the same as a mass market. Generally, these use a higher grade of paper than a standard, offset mass market (often 60 lb. for paperbacks, which is a little thicker than your normal copier paper).

      Like the Espresso Book Machine, most of the companies making POD books (e.g. Createspace and Lightning Source) are also cutting off a good deal of paper, creating a lot of waste, but they optimize that waste by printing two or even four up. Because of the massive amount of titles produced, you could have your book printed next to 1 or 2 other authors books.

  2. You’re absolutely right, new contracts are desperately needed. Just the thought of signing a contract that conceivably could last the rest of my life seems reckless to me at this point. The one place I would quibble is that those book contracts with their fancy boilerplate make perfect sense to the publishers who use them. I read the interview with Charlie Redmayne the other day and when he did talk about writers, it was entirely about big bestsellers, mega branding and how they need to create superstars. I have a hard time seeing folks like that helping establish a vibrant industry wide backlist, particularly for midlist writers on down, anything that could take sales from the blockbuster model. Unfortunately, I think the only way these types of life-of-copyright contracts are going to diminish is if authors on the whole, right down to the greenest first time novelist getting a $3k advance, start refusing to sign them. A trend I’d be fully in support of, by the way. Keep up the good work!

  3. Great ideas, as usual! I’m sorry to say that I think most traditional publishing houses are in a completely different place in terms of their thinking about books. I don’t believe they WANT to keep books viable past that three-month point…any more than movie studios think much past the opening weekend and creating a first impression that a film is a blockbuster. It’s all about the next new thing.

    But the book world is changing quickly, and in order to survive, perhaps that kind of thinking will have to change too.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree that contracts need to be friendlier to authors on this point (as well as others). I hesitate even to submit a book to any of them right now. As for size, I prefer 5.25 by 8 inches. Smaller books – if they have more than 200 pages – are hard to hold and read.

  5. “Hundreds of years from now, anything written today will still be available for sale.”

    Do you really think, as technology changes, all these books are going to get ported over to the new formats or that data will always be in ASCII? Granted one’s and zeros may never change but how and on what devices those are read and/or stored, will changes. I would think a hundred years from now everything that is digital will be at risk. Just as pictures taken in 1940 will last longer than pictures taken in 1970 or 1999 or today. All these digital pictures and written words will have to be saved and tweaked for new formats or more likely, lost. Much as old pictures and letters were tossed in the past, which was at least one had to know what was being tossed, will be tossed before being saved or know about.

    I would contend that a hundred years from now this era will be a bit of a black hole. There will be no letters; who is going to save their emails let alone port them to a new format? There will far fewer pictures for the same reason. Even something as mundane as utility bills, which tend to change as technology does, are more often digital and discarded. Many of those items which have previously allowed us a window to the past will be discarded with grandpa,s old computer.

    1. Yes, content will be converted. Movies that came out on film 80 years ago have been re-released on half a dozen formats. Same for music. The words exist in a Microsoft Word file, which is too ubiquitous for future file readers not to be able to import.

      And pictures taken in 1940 are rotting. Look closely at any painting in a museum. Digital is far superior to analog for weathering time.

    2. Librarians & Archivists of all kinds work on both physical & digital preservation. There are also people in the digital humanities work to preserve digitized as well as born-digital content. Preservation takes work whether or not the content is analog or digital. But it can be done.

      As an aside, The Atlantic did a great article on the Library of Congress destroying donated CDs so they can figure out how to care for their collection materials. If you’re interested check it out here:

  6. I was able to renegotiate some of the points in the contract my coauthor and I have with our university press publisher. Our manuscript didn’t fit into the traditional scholarly text (as the book is narrative nonfiction), so many of the points in the contract were not in our best interest, especially our ability to adapt the book. I also was able to tweak the reversion rights. They aren’t my ideal, but they were better than they were.

  7. I love your mold-breaking thinking on this stuff. It might take the big 6 a while to come round, but it’s great for authors to have some suggestions of their own when they come to the table.

  8. […] The Yellow Light Reversion Clause | Hugh Howey […]

  9. […] Howey has an idea or two on reversion clauses, Passive Guy has some opinions as well. My understanding on reversions goes like this, books are […]

  10. I’m working on my first novel. When it’s done (and the e-formatting, cover art, etc.), my plan is to throw it up on Amazon’s Kindle Store. If that’s my plan — and it is, given the many encouraging blog posts I’ve been reading here — isn’t the whole publishers’-contracts-are-unfair-business-crap argument moot for me? Why would I even go there? (Seriously, I’m asking? Is e-publishing not always, or for everyone, the way to go?)

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