Author-Unfriendly Terms at Autharium

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

 Over the past few weeks I've gotten a number of questions and alerts about author-unfriendly Terms and Conditions at Autharium, a new epublishing startup. So I thought I'd check into it myself.

Autharium describes itself thus:
Autharium was created with the purpose of discovering great writers and publishing their work. The idea struck the co-founders Matt Bradbeer, Simon Maylott and Aaron Bell when they discovered and became frustrated with how difficult or expensive it was to publish a book, break through the old publishing routes and reach readers...

There is no charge to be published and distributed through Autharium, there are no hidden costs and the royalties are always split in the authors [sic] favour. Our mission is to discover and publish the next great books and the authors behind them.
Authors can use Autharium's online tools to upload, format, and edit their books (which sure sounds like self-publishing, although, according to Autharium's FAQ,  books are "curated" and not everything that's submitted is published). Once books are uploaded, authors can can send them to the Autharium community for comment and review, or submit them for publication. Payment is 85% of net revenue.

Autharium is in beta, and currently free to use. However (and despite the language quoted above), wording on the site and in the Terms and Conditions strongly suggests that there will be publishing and other fees at some point in the future.

So far, Autharium sounds like one of those combination writing communities/self-publishing services, a la Book Country, YouWriteOn, or the recently-defunct WeBook. As long as there's a decent community sharing feedback, and the publishing service is free or low-cost, where's the problem?

As is so often the case, in the publishing agreement.

Trouble appears in the very first clause of Autharium's Publishing Terms and Conditions for Authors (I've bolded the significant language):
1.1 By submitting your Work to Autharium and accepting these Terms & Conditions, you grant to Autharium the exclusive right and licence to produce, publish, promote, market and sell your Work in any Digital all languages throughout the world for the entire legal term of copyright (and any and all extensions, renewals and revivals of the term of copyright).

1.2 You agree that Autharium shall also be entitled to license retailers, distributors, agents, licensees, sub-contractors and other third parties to exercise the rights you have granted to Autharium under this Agreement.

1.3 The rights granted in paragraphs 1.1 and 1.2 above shall also apply to any adaptation or any abridgement of your Work or any substantial part of your Work.
In other words, by submitting your manuscript to Autharium for publication, you are granting exclusive digital publishing rights to your work, and to adaptations/abridgements of your work, in all languages, for the entire duration of copyright, as well as the ability to license those rights to others. That's a pretty sweeping grant of rights--not what you typically expect to find in the contract of a self-publishing service.

If Autharium decides not to publish your manuscript, it will notify you, and the grant will terminate immediately. But until you receive such notification you are bound to Autharium, and cannot publish your work anywhere else in digital form. Since there's nothing in the contract that requires Autharium to be prompt, or gives it a timeframe in which to respond, you could be waiting for a while.
It gets worse. Authors who publish with Autharium can remove their work from sale at any time--but this "will not terminate this Agreement nor cause the exclusive digital publishing rights that you have granted to revert to you." So you can terminate your book--but Autharium will still hold the rights and you won't be able to publish elsewhere unless you can get Autharium to give you permission. (Enquiring minds can't help wondering whether, in such a case, a fee might be involved.)

In fact, per Autharium's Term, Termination, Reversion and Suspension of Rights clause, authors have no termination rights whatever unless Autharium breaches the terms of the Agreement and fails to remedy the breach, or allows a work to become "unavailable in all editions" (and "available" might just mean an ebook for sale on Autharium's own website).

There is so much wrong here.

- A life-of-copyright grant term. I've said elsewhere that life-of-copyright grant terms are not a problem as long as there's precise reversion language that ensures that authors can get their rights back once sales fall below stated minimums. However, that's in reference to publishers--not glorified self-publishing services like Autharium. Life-of-copyright terms are completely inappropriate for such services (this is one of the things that made the agreement for Dymocks' recently-terminated D Publishing service so horrific). Even a fixed-term contract isn't desirable when you're self-publishing.

- An exclusive grant term. Exclusivity is also not desirable when you're self-publishing, unless the publishing service is offering something major in return (such as payment for ebook lending, as with Amazon's Kindle Owners' Lending Library). You want to be able to maximize sales and readership by publishing to as many platforms as possible; exclusivity prevents you from doing that.

- A claim on rights beyond ebooks. Autharium publishes "in Digital Form," which is sweepingly defined as "any and all electronic and/or digital forms and media whether now known or later invented or developed." This conceivably could include not just ebooks but audiobooks, enhanced ebooks, and video games. Additionally, Autharium claims the right to publish in all languages, and to license your rights to others. All of this negates one of the main benefits of self-publishing: minimal encumbrance of your rights. A self-publishing service should not require you to grant rights beyond those necessary to provide the service.

- Authors cannot terminate at will. Another of the major benefits of self-publishing is control. If you lose the right to terminate an agreement at any time, for any reason, you're giving up a huge amount of control--especially if the terms of the agreement don't allow you to publish anywhere else.

- Inadequate definition of out-of-print. See life-of-copyright, above. If you can't terminate at will, there should at least be clear, objective reversion terms that allow you to regain your rights after a fixed period of time or once sales fall below stated minimums. Otherwise, the publishing service can hang onto your rights for as long as it chooses, whether or not your book is selling. Autharium's vague out-of-print language, the effect of which is to enable it to keep a death-grip on your rights as long as a single electronic edition of your book is available on a single website somewhere, is completely inadequate.

- Will eager authors discover these unfavorable terms? I signed up for Autharium and uploaded a document. I got as far as the Publishing Options page, where, before they can submit for publication, authors are required to check a box to accept Autharium's Terms and Conditions. Not only is it not stated that these are the publishing terms and conditions (there are also general terms and conditions), the link provided goes nowhere. Often enough, authors barely skim Terms and Conditions or publishing agreements, even when they're easy to find. Making authors work to find them is practically a guarantee they won't be read.

In response to criticism elsewhere, Autharium staff have argued that Autharium is a publisher, not a self-publishing service, because "we do not publish everything submitted." However, publishers don't leave formatting, editing, and cover art to authors, or allow authors to set book prices. Those are hallmarks of self-publishing services. And even if we cut Autharium a hundred miles of slack and agree it's a publisher, its reversion language still sucks.

All in all, a bad deal for authors.

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