For Major Publishers, Will Print No Longer Be the Norm?

This post, by Rachel Deahl with additional reporting from Jim Milliot, originally appeared on Publishers Weekly on 10/25/13.

Format has been a long-simmering topic of debate in book publishing, and the question of when, and if, a title is published in hardcover, paperback, and/or digital has become even more pressing as bricks-and-mortar bookstores dwindle and e-book sales grow. The idea that any standard deal from a major publisher guarantees a print format release—which was previously a foregone conclusion—is something agents no longer take for granted, with some expressing concern that the big houses are starting to hedge on print editions in contracts.

While e-book-only agreements are nothing new—all large publishers have imprints that are exclusively dedicated to digital titles—a handful of agents, all of whom spoke to PW on the condition of anonymity, said they’re worried that contracts from print-first imprints will increasingly come with clauses indicating that the publisher makes no guarantee on format. The agents say this is a new twist to the standard way of doing business.

While sources acknowledged that contracts from print-first imprints (as opposed to e-only ones) featuring clauses that give the publisher the freedom to decide on format are not new, the feeling is that these clauses are the exception, not the rule. Recently, though, a handful of agents have expressed concerns about print imprints refusing to commit on this issue.

Most of the big five houses PW contacted declined to respond to inquiries on the matter, saying that they don’t comment on contract negotiations. While some agents said they fear that Random House (and, possibly, the larger merged entity of Penguin Random House) is preparing to add a clause to its boilerplate indicating that it doesn’t commit to a format, a spokesman for the publisher shot down this notion. Penguin Random House’s Stuart Applebaum told PW that no change has taken place: “The suggestion that Penguin Group (USA) LLC and Random House LLC are changing their standard boilerplate contracts so as to limit publishing formats is not correct. Each of our author contracts continue to be negotiated individually, and confidentially.”


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