Penguin's insane policy on electronic galleys for authors

[Ed: An anonymous reader from the publishing industry wrote in with the following. I have every reason to believe it's true -Cory]

Update: An agent writes in to say: "Penguin ALSO doesn't want to give agents the hi-res final jacket image without charging. We can often beg/loophole/cajole -- but the official party line is they are supposed to charge $300. (???!) Mind you, this could pretty much ONLY be used to promote the book. We like to put the book jacket on our agency website, in our agency catalogues for foreign book fairs, make postcards, etc... but obviously we can't authorize any other territory to use this image. So essentially they are saying they don't want us to create promo material on the book's behalf, even on our own dime."

There's something going on at Penguin (interesting to see if it changes now that it's Penguin Random House, though all signs point no) that's so stupid and old school and against all authors that I thought I'd share.

In every contract in publishing, there's language (as you know) that gives an author a certain number of copies of the book, on publication. When ebooks came to play, agents began trying to negotiate for an electronic version of the book too, oftentimes successful. What they /can't/ get from Penguin (and a few other publishers, though notably Penguin) is a final PDF or even a final word doc of the book. Agents are told that Penguin puts work into the layout, edit and design and so agents can't just give that work away to foreign countries for them to use in their editions. That work must be paid for. I semi-buy that argument, though it makes me think two things: 1) Shame on them for getting in the way (as they do sometimes) of a foreign deal and 2) Penguin is contractually obligated to create the book anyway, with all of those pieces.

To deal with this, Penguin (and a few other places), have set it up that you can buy a PDF file for $250-300 to send the book to foreign publishers. That cost is often borne by the author or the agency. Ridiculous. To get around it, agents have tried to approach at negotiation. But, when making a deal in the six figure mark, even at auction, agents still can't get that one little guarantee. We're talking BIG books and BIG agencies, but nope. Won't go into contracts (even though I'm sure there are exceptions, the point stands). What's more, Penguin will laugh off the idea of getting around it by making an author's advance, say, $20,300. Or $250,300.

In the past few years, the issue has changed, grown to something more important and costly. When a book is ready to be marketed, Penguin will print loads of galleys. Great, important, standard. But what they won't do is give out electronic versions of the book. Not DRM and watermarked copies. Not password protected copies. Any exceptions to this rule are usually limited to one or two copies, pre-approved, sent by the editor and not the author or agent. But in this day and age, so so many people want to read electronically, that it's actually a real problem. Here's what happens:

  1. Author queries writer friend, bookstore owner, 'big mouth', person author respects, etc. and a few of them are traveling or prefer an e-version, they love their Nooks.
  2. Author can either send an old version of the book, the last remaining on author's computer, usually two-four edits old.
  3. Author can scan and send a marked proof (second to last edit, typeset, photocopied and sent to Author for approval).
  4. Author can miss the opportunity to connect with said contact.
  5. Or Author can buy the document for 300 dollars and send it around willy nilly.
  6. Practically some agents get around this by just appealing to the editor or the asst., but Penguin specifically has a very firm policy and won't let them go. These manuscripts are sometimes to help set the book up for film/TV, foreign markets, or publicity. ALL good for author/publisher.

All ridiculous that there's an impediment.

What does Penguin think would happen?

  1. That the book would get leaked?
    1. Has there ever been a debut novel that has been leaked that has been a problem? I cannot think of one.
    2. A famous case of one that had been leaked is GO THE F TO SLEEP, a picture book (and so possible to read completely in the span of 5 minutes), that went on to be a #1 NYTimes bestseller and sell hundreds of thousands if not over a million copies.
    3. Why isn't it a problem? This is important. It acts as word of mouth, as publicity (and that, mind you, is if it IS leaked, which it probably won't be). Frankly, the measure of success of a book is based on such few relative numbers (ie, 20k is a great number to hit – imagine if movies had only 20k people watching…) that a big leak probably would do good for the publication.
  2. That… what? I can't think of anything else. Give away an ending? The first review with spoilers will do that.

Then there's the entire issue about an author not having access to his own work, which is harder to parse.

  1. Penguin DOES buy the rights.
  2. But the author owns the copyright. It's his/her work.
  3. It seems morally dubious to not allow an author to not have a final copy of the book in every form - including electronic form, even if we're talking pre-design. Take away the design and give the author the bare bones. Publishers DO give physical copies, so they seem to agree.

Ultimately, Penguin is stepping on the necks of themselves and their authors. Old thinking, backward thinking. The result of this is either missed opportunity, negative relations between author/editor/publisher, and/or people reading older, lesser versions of works by debut authors who just want to make it and would like their publishers support to have it happen. If we're talking the JK Rowlings of the world, fine – lock up those books and don’t let anyone read them, but that's such a different and obvs. case that it proves the point.