Getting our souls back

IT'S ABOUT time book authors took a stand over the matter of "no competing works" clauses in authors' contracts. That was the suggestion of a member of NibWeb the network for writers of children's information books.

These clauses fairly standard in book publishing do what they say. You agree not to produce any competing works. No, it's not the same as a rights grab. You're actually being asked to give up the possibility of writing on the same subject for the same readership ever again. They own, one might say, your soul.

It might just make sense if your book is something utterly original, you're being paid through royalties, and both you and your publisher expect to make serious money. But to apply it to yet another book for nine-year-olds about everyday life in Ancient Rome (or any of the other host of popular non-fiction topics that fill huge sections of bookshops and supermarkets up and down the country) would be bizarre if the implications were not so serious.

The writer concerned decided to challenge the publisher. "I'm being hired because of my specialist knowledge," she says. "I make a living writing about this subject." To the publisher who wants to guard against her producing exactly the same book for someone else, she says, "that would be the time to take action against me not when I'm about to embark on a poorly paid project."

Support came flooding in. One writer suggests (probably correctly) that the clause is a part of a one-size-fits-all (but doesn't) contract aimed at a different kind of book, others that they have tried to negotiate the clause away, with varying degrees of success. Another reported that he had foxed the offending publisher by pointing out that he'd already written several competing works. Yet another seemed to be more relaxed about the whole thing confident that, given that writers make their living by producing said "competing works" it would be hard for a case stand up in court. But that's not something many of us would care to risk.

The original writer did manage to get the publisher to agree to her terms, but only "as if they're doing me some massive favour".

Advice from the Society of Authors is, ideally to delete the clause, or if that is not possible, to restrict its scope so that you can continue to work.

As for me I agree it is indeed time to take a stand. The implications, if this caught on in other parts of the media, are terrifying. They make a mere copyright grab look quite benign.

Last modified: 27 September 2005 - © 2005 contributors
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