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E-Books and Permissions

As we all know, on Saturday our understanding of the modern world was irreversibly altered when Butler upended MSU to represent the Horizon League (Horizon League?!?) in tonight’s National Championship Apple released the iPad. To mark this occasion, the Times ran an interesting op-ed from nonfiction author Marc Aronson about paying for permissions in a digital age:

In order for electronic books to live up to their billing, we have to fix a system that is broken: getting permission to use copyrighted material in new work. Either we change the way we deal with copyrights — or works of nonfiction in a multimedia world will become ever more dull and disappointing.

The hope of nonfiction is to connect readers to something outside the book: the past, a discovery, a social issue. To do this, authors need to draw on pre-existing words and images.

Unless we nonfiction writers are lucky and hit a public-domain mother lode, we have to pay for the right to use just about anything — from a single line of a song to any part of a poem; from the vast archives of the world’s art (now managed by gimlet-eyed venture capitalists) to the historical images that serve as profit centers for museums and academic libraries.

Copyright issues and permissions are an age-old problem, but what makes Aronson’s piece interesting to me is his suggestion of how to fix this:

For e-books, the new model would look something like this: Instead of paying permission fees upfront based on estimated print runs, book creators would pay based on a periodic accounting of downloads. Right now, fees are laid out on a set schedule whose minimum rates are often higher than a modest book can support. The costs may be fine for textbooks or advertisers, but they punish individual authors. Since publishers can’t afford to fully cover permissions fees for print books, and cannot yet predict what they will earn from e-books, the writer has to choose between taking a loss on permissions fees or short-changing readers on content.

Putting aside piracy issues for a minute (or, heaven bless us, forever), this idea does represent one of the promises for an e-book world. I know from negotiating permission in the past that the current system is pretty much bullshit. I would always claim that we were going to sell something in the range of 75 copies of a particular title, the rights holder would still insist on a multi-thousand dollar fee that would exceed some author advances, and the whole process was fairly disturbing. Anything on a pay-per-piece model is appealing to me, since it actually ties expenses to sales and makes a book’s budget a little more logical. (Just a little bit, but still, in this industry, a little logic could go a long way.)



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