Avoiding the all mod cons

June 14, 1996

GUIDELINES FOR WRITERS IN ELECTRONIC PUBLISHING AND MULTIMEDIA Edited by Jane Dorner Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society 32pp, free to members

You are a writer. You write academic texts and journal articles and you are interested in making your work more widely available through the new digital and electronic media.

One day a group of people you have not met approaches you as in the darkness you huddle for warmth around the flickering light of a PC screen. They are from the land of electronic publishing where land is created from ideas: cyberspace - the new frontier. They may offer money. They may not. They may offer reputation. They may not. Do you run to the bank or run for the hills?

The new and emerging digital and electronic media are often portrayed in terms somewhere between the Starship Enterprise, boldly going where no media has gone before, and the Louisiana land rush. If that is so, then authors are in the position of the original inhabitants wondering whether or not a fistful of beads, some dollars and a blanket are sufficient exchange for what might someday become New York.

This excellent publication from the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society is a well written and blissfully jargon-free seller's guide to property prices in the new territories. It pitches its advice at an easily understandable level for all writers who may become involved in the electronic exploitation of their work. And it does so in a way which attempts to avoid the drawing up of partisan negotiating positions.

Instead it concentrates on promoting an understanding of the sometimes complicated relationships that exist between writers, publishers, production budgets and the potential for commercial exploitation.

For academic authors, who are both creators and users of copyright, an understanding of those relationships is particularly important.

At its simplest, the problem for anyone dealing with electronic rights is that it is difficult to be confident about exactly which rights may become most valuable. Who could have predicted the value of video rights or digital recording rights before the technologies became available and were adopted widely by consumers?

The pamphlet breaks writers into five main groupings - academic authors, book authors, journalists, scriptwriters and screenwriters. Each group will have its own priorities and is given a section concentrating upon relevant aspects of the subject.

At only 32 pages, however, the pamphlet is read easily in a single sitting, giving readers a useful overview of the subject before concentrating on their own writing experience in more detail.

Effective electronic publishing depends upon the collaboration of many contributors, some with backgrounds in creative industries that have had little previous need to work together.

The introductory section of the pamphlet quite rightly emphasises the importance of good communications between writer and publisher, particularly regarding the intended market for the work, the weighing of the writer's contribution against those of others and, importantly, production costs.

Electronic development can be expensive, much more expensive than conventional text publishing, and it can be easy to overestimate the potential for profit. Its terminology can also be confusing to the writer coming to the electronic media for the first time. The pamphlet carries a useful and comprehensive glossary of terms.

The section of most interest to academic authors gives good advice on negotiating terms before entering into an agreement with a publisher and on how to weigh up the opportunities offered, according to whether the work is commissioned for simultaneous publication in both book and electronic form or whether electronic rights are to be sub-licensed by the publisher.

Payment terms - either by buy-out or royalty - are not easy to assess in a new industry where income is difficult to predict and development costs are high. There is good advice on how a writer can begin to judge how best to ask for payment.

The pamphlet helps writers to address these issues by understanding what rights they are being asked to license and why.

It breaks down electronic publishing into its discrete elements: online publishing, CD-Rom, interactive multimedia and so on, and it addresses the contractual, production and negotiating points raised by each variant in turn.

It is particularly strong in its assessment of the writer's approach to negotiating a licensing agreement with a publisher, taking into account the nature of the writer's contribution and the nature of the publication.

There is a wider relevance, though, for an academic readership made up of both creators and users of copyright material (and many of us will be both). Though written with an audience of writers in mind, there can be no doubt that in examining the electronic rights environment in which increasingly many of us will be working, the pamphlet illustrates the concerns of both creators and users in a way that is useful to both.

There are many publishers (and what else but publishers are creators of course materials, even at the most basic level) whose understanding of the licensing issues involved in electronic publishing would be greatly enhanced by having a copy of this pamphlet to hand.

*Guidelines for Writers in Electronic Publishing and Multimedia is available online at: http://www.alcs.co.uk or by post from ALCS, Isis House, 74 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1EF. It may be photocopied with acknowledgement.

Richard McCracken is in the rights department, Open University.

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