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In the old days, books went out of print shortly after it stopped being profitable for the publisher to print new runs. My understanding is that good contracts had clauses that caused the rights to the book to revert to the author once it had been out of print for a certain length of time.

Nowadays, e-books seem to be a standard part of contracts. E-books essentially put all the publisher's costs up-front, and make it very inexpensive to keep the electronic version of a book in print indefinitely.

Does this allow publishers to keep books "in print" forever and prevent the rights from reverting to the author, even when the book isn't selling? Is it common for modern contracts to include language that allows the rights to revert if sales drop below a certain threshold?

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Definition of terms is always crucial. As Ralph Gallagher says, books go out of print when the contract is ended. That point may be defined differently with different authors and publishers, perhaps 'one print run' or 'when sales drop to less than X dollars per annum' or even 'until there's been no interest for one full year'. I believe an author I know of received a ten-year term in her contract, and when it was up she renegotiated for some other deal with an omnibus edition of several works. I'll have to see if I can dig up the details.

This question though is Exhibit A on why you need an agent when dealing with a publisher. An agent will be able to advise you on this and will negotiate an effective ending date of the contract in the age of e-books. A good agent will protect your interests (and your profits) from publishers who will claim (correctly, as it happens) that nothing is out of print and try to hang on to rights forever.

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The contract says what the contract says. I've had some shown to me that were amazingly bad; all rights in perpetuity, all media. Nowadays, if you die, your heirs can break one of those.

A lot of editors will show you a default contract in their favor -- and change terms instantly as soon as they know you caught'em.

If you're concerned, write in a reversion clause, but remember with technical books especially the lifetime of a book is relatively short. If it reverts after 5 years, it may not make any difference.

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On the contacts that I've signed (granted, they were for short stories in anthologies), rights reverted to me after a specific period of time (one year, five years, etc).

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I've never seen an expiration date on a tech book contract.

For instance, here are the O'Reilly standard book contract terms:

You grant us the exclusive right to print, publish, distribute, and sell copies of the book, and works derived from the book, in printed form and in electronic media such as CD-ROM, and to license others to do so, for the duration of the copyright in the book, in all languages, throughout the world. Your name will appear on the title page of the book as its author, but we'll obtain copyright for the book in our name.

Most of the contracts I've signed say my rights will revert back to me when the book goes out of print. And just like you mention above: between ebooks and POD, publishers now say that nothing's ever out of print, so rights never revert.

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When does the contract expire though? That's when the books will go out of print. Or did you sign a never ending contract? –  Ralph Gallagher Jan 12 '11 at 18:52
    
I find it interesting that you bring up O'Reilly here, as they have a reputation for being extremely flexible with authors. I've even seen them publish books that are also available under a Creative Commons license. –  HedgeMage Jan 12 '11 at 23:10
    
@Ralph - as I said: "I've never seen an expiration date on a tech book contract." Ever. Really. Books don't go out of print because the contract lapses; rather, the contract lapses when they go out of print. Books go out of print when it's no longer commercially viable to reprint them—so when the reprint cost goes down to zero, they never officially go out of print. –  Dori Jan 13 '11 at 0:10
    
@Hedge - Actually, I brought up the O'Reilly contract for a number of reasons: the contract is publicly available, I've written for them, and they've got a high rep in their field. As I mentioned above, that's their "standard" book contract; speaking from experience, yes, they will modify it if the author can make a strong case why it should change. –  Dori Jan 13 '11 at 0:13
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@Ralph Keep in mind that most fiction is still equally relevant two years later, and great fiction is still relevant two hundred years later. Technology changes fast. Apart from The Cathedral and the Bazaar and The Art of Computer Programming, I can't think of a computer book that held relevance over a matter of decades. (For example, The Definitive Guide To Drupal 7 will have limited popularity once Drupal 8 comes out, and be totally irrelevant after Drupal 7 hits end-of-life.) –  HedgeMage Jan 13 '11 at 1:53
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Books go out of print when the contract runs up an either the author or the publisher doesn't opt to renew it. Books don't get pulled just because they're not making the sales, but if the books aren't making the sales, the contract most likely won't be renewed. Contracts can last anywhere from 2-7 years or longer, depending on negotiations.

When a contract runs out, there are two options. It can either be renewed, or it can end. If it ends, all rights revert back to the author and the publisher has to stop selling all books. They are allowed to sell off any remaining print books, but they're not allowed to print any more. Ebook sales stop immediately.

If for some reason an author is unhappy with their publisher and wants their rights back, it is possible to cancel a contract earlier if the publisher is agreeable. But, if the publisher is making money off the books, they're most likely not going to agree unless the author has a lot of pull or they're on very good terms. That means the author is stuck with them until the contract expires. Publishers don't own the rights to books indefinitely.

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Doesn't sound like any of the book contracts I've seen. What major publishers do this? –  Dori Jan 12 '11 at 9:36
    
All book contracts should have some kind of expiration date on them. You /never/ sign a contract that gives them neverending rights. It's written in my contract as "This Agreement shall be for a minimum initial period of three (3) years from the actual date of publication, with automatic monthly renewal after the initial three (3) year period." With a section after it for how to terminate the contract. –  Ralph Gallagher Jan 12 '11 at 19:00
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