When the heirs to A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh and Steinbeck's works went to court in 2009, they wanted to vacate publishing rights and regain control of the works and money generated. Milne's heirs failed to win against Disney studios and the Supreme Court refused to hear Steinbeck's heirs case.
The window for filing to regain author rights signed over to publishers is fast approaching and authors like Stephen King, Judith Krantz, John Le Carre, and Ken Follett could be making a run for the border with their back list in hand, or so says Jeff John Roberts in his recent article. What this means for publishers is a season of loss and court cases unless publishers make some very sweet deals with authors to retain copyrights to billions of dollars of best sellers and big name authors. Considering what that will mean to the bottom line -- and to digital rights -- is likely forcing publishers to crack the whip over their legal eagles to burn the midnight oil and find a solution that will allow them to keep control of their biggest cash cows.
While big name authors make money on the front end, it is the back list, those books that comprise the body of the authors' years of work, that keep the money flowing into publishers' pockets. Authors have gotten rich, but publishers get richer off backlists. Losing backlists, in addition to the control of ebook royalties and rights, in light of their short-sightedness over the longevity and viability of ebooks and the way the public has embraced the digital format, would be a near fatal blow. After all, ebooks were supposed to be a fad and not the multi-billion dollar business that it has become.
It is doubtful that big name writers will want to spend their days -- or their money -- paying lawyers and going to court, and publishers will be all too happy to use that issue to keep control. However, never say never.
This next year, 2013, looks to be a big year for publishing, a bigger year perhaps than previous years when more and more writers jumped the big publishing ship to go independent and cut publishers out of the digital revolution. There are loopholes (there are always loopholes) that publishers will be more than happy to exploit, but it is more likely that authors will negotiate to get a bigger slice of the pie that they worked so hard to fill -- and from which they have been excluded. Publishers deserve to benefit from their part in publishing and marketing the books that reside in their backlist, but not in perpetuity. I look forward to seeing how many authors will jump ship and sell their backlists in digital format for a fraction of what publishers continue to gouge out of an increasingly cash strapped public.
The heirs to Milne's Winnie the Pooh may have lost to Disney, but the outcome of future cases has still to be decided.