RosettaBooks

This is going to the first in a series of posts where I talk about some publishers who I think are noteworthy in some ways. They may be innovative in an area that catch my eyes; they may have unusual business models; or I may marvel at a particular thing that they do. None of this is to say that there aren’t other publishers out there who may do the same or even better thing or be likewise deserving of attention. You give that adoration and feature them, OK?

First up is RosettaBooks whose turbulent history I learned about a while ago and whose existence I was just reminded of recently when I bought their e-edition of Six Days of War by Michael Oren. As you can see by clicking around on that Amazon page where Six Days of War is sold, this book wasn’t initially brought out by RosettaBooks. The book was first published in print in 2002 by Oxford University Press. In 2010, RosettaBooks issued the book in electronic format, with a new author’s interview and a horrifying slap-slick cover. This brings us to what is interesting about RosettaBooks.

As illustrated by Oren’s book, RosettaBooks a notable e-publisher of backlist titles — titles that were originally brought out by some other publishing houses whose rights to e-publication RosettaBooks then acquires from the authors themselves, bypassing these original publishers. When it was just a young’un of a company and did this with some books by big names such as Kurt Vonnegut and William Styron, RosettaBooks got sued by Random House, the original publisher of the titles by those authors. The glorious history of that entire dispute — including complaint, answer, decision, appeal, affirmation of original decision, and followup — is documented by RosettaBooks here. The history is glorious for RosettaBooks because it won that case (otherwise, the company probably wouldn’t have been around today to host a website to document anything).

That’s not why we care. We care because in winning the case RosettaBooks set a very important precedent in the world of publishing. What was in dispute between RosettaBooks and Random is whether by signing a contract that gives Random House “the exclusive right to publish, print, and sell their copyrighted works in book form“, the authors have ceded their rights to publish e-books to Random House and thus cannot license such rights to RosettaBooks. The sticking point is, of course, that these contracts were signed when e-books were nonexistent. Thus, the case turned on how contract language should be interpreted in the face of unanticipated technological progress. Should a right not explicitly given be reserved to the right granters — the authors — or is an e-book a book, in which case the rights to publish e-books rest with Random House, the publisher of the “works in book form”?

RosettaBooks won, as mentioned previously. This shouldn’t be interpreted as the court deciding that an e-book isn’t a book in common parlance, but rather that the contract signed between Random House and the authors sufficiently limit the the rights the writers transferred to the publisher so that the former retain the ability to license e-publications to others. The decision and the presence of e-book technologies mean publishers now sign contracts with much different language than they did before — e-publication rights are explicitly transferred and many publishers may now try to put in clauses like “in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented“. How courts may judge such language — after all can one really sign away one’s rights if one has no idea what may hereinafter be invented and so no idea what one is agreeing to — I don’t know.

Besides its illustrious legal history, RosettaBooks is also notable for being an aggressive independent publisher. The firm is headed by Arthur Klebanoff, a literary agent who has achieved celebrity fame within the book publishing world. RosettaBooks aggressively markets itself to authors and seeks to distinguish its house from the traditional Big Six publishers. Take a look its FAQ to get a sense of the company. See, for instance, such points driven home as “RosettaBooks offers the highest royalty rates of any ebook publisher”, “RosettaBooks is more flexible about territorial arrangements than other publishers”, “RosettaBooks seeks a five year license. Large publishers demand life of copyright. In an ever changing space, RosettaBooks feels it should demonstrate its performance to the author to earn a renewal” . . . etc.

Next up in the series, a publisher of a completely different kiln, Open Book Publishers.

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2 Responses to RosettaBooks

  1. A publisher with a similar business strategy to RosettaBooks is Open Road Integrated Media. It is like RosettaBooks in many ways, but one obvious difference is Open Road emphasis on multimedia (whatever that means). Note that the name of the company doesn’t even mention the word book, publisher, house, imprint or anything so dated. Instead “Integrated Media” is the chosen descriptor. I don’t think I care a fig. What attracts me is the 80% off all e-books in celebration of Cyber Monday.

  2. And now Open Road is engaged in a lawsuit very similar to that which RosettaBooks successfully defended against Random House. Open Road and Harper Collins are now tussling over whether a contract clause referring to “storage and retrieval and information systems” includes the right to print e-books. See here.

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