Can Your Book Publisher Become Your E-Book Publisher?

By Richard Curtis

Yesterday I commented on a news item about a publisher, St. Martin's Press, that had released a book as an original e-book. I said,
It raises a provocative question for authors and agents (and publishing lawyers): is there anything in a conventional book contract that prevents your publisher from releasing your book originally as an e-book? Or, for that matter, exclusively as an e-book as opposed to print on paper? I would guess that the author of the St. Martin's Press book explicitly waived his right to have his book published first in a hardcover or paperback volume. But what about us garden variety authors? Could a publisher elect to go straight into e-book without our express permission?
After I wrote this I realized these questions only give rise to more questions.

Suppose that the St. Martin's book were not merely a one-time exception to the traditional practice of publishing books originally in print format. Suppose instead that it was the first step in a major shift among conventional book publishers - the Random Houses, Simon & Schusters, the HarperCollins, as well as the St. Martinses -- from launching books in hard copy to launching them in e-book format - indeed, to launching them only in e-book format.

This is not a fanciful question. Given the inefficient economies of print publication, and the efficiencies of digital publication, it is entirely possible that we could experience the same kind of shift that we are seeing in the newspaper and magazine business as the paper-reading generation gives way to a digitally-oriented one. (I am writing this on the day that the New York Times reported a 51% drop in earnings.)

If original e-book publication becomes not merely an occasional or optional event but a primary format - well, what does that say for the identities of the Random Houses, Simon & Schusters, HarperCollins, and St. Martinses? What does it say for the publishing industry? For editors? For authors? For -- omigod -- agents?

Just asking!

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