Authors get option to take their 35-year-old books back this Jan

This January sees the first cohorts of books whose authors can terminate their contracts with their publishers under a 1978 law that lets authors kill their old deals after 35 years. Given all the interesting stuff happening with backlists and ebooks, expect to see a lot of authors being courted by, say, Amazon with big fat advances for their profitable backlists if they yank their books and make them Amazon-exclusive. And this is going to happen every year from now on.

The law in question is Section 203 of the 1978 Copyright Act which allows authors to cut away any contract after 35 years. Congress put it in place to protect young artists who signed away future best sellers for a pittance.

“People have had 2013 circled on their calendar for a while,” said Andrew Bart, a copyright lawyer at Jenner & Block, in a phone interview...

The 1978 law also means a threat to the back list of titles that are a cash cow for many publishers. The threat is amplified as a result of new digital distribution options for authors that were never conceived when the law was passed — these new options mean authors have more leverage to walk away from their publishers altogether.

Publishers brace for authors to reclaim book rights in 2013 (via Making Light)


  1. It took me a moment to understand this – I was thinking it would be something about extremely overdue library materials.

  2. I laughed at the choice of “Wifey” for the book cover to accompany this bit.  This book was released my freshman year of high school and was covertly passed around from kid to kid under threat of becoming “persona-non-Grata” to the entire student body should one lose the book or get caught with it by the authorities. 

  3. When a bestselling author negotiates a contract for a new book, some provision is almost always made in the contract for their backlist titles,if they are of any value. Just because a book was first published in 1978, does not mean that there is not a more recent contract regarding its copyright. Furthermore, since Amazon is less than half of the retail market and signing an exclusive with them will mean effectively no print copies of those titles in bookstores, it would not be in the financial best interest of those authors to limit the sales of successful backlist titles in that way, even if Amazon were willing to pay a lot for them, which seems unlikely. 

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