Spiny problem for book hacks

WRITERS of non-fiction children's books are chafing under restrictions that publishers like to put on them. Topping the list are "no-compete" contracts, worded so that the author can never write a book on the same subject again - a bit of a problem for someone who specialises in that field. A major gripe, though, is the restriction on what they can put in the books that they are allowed to write.

Fiction authors' royalty payments, a percentage of total sales, were held up by an industry representative at a recent EU conference as a model as though they mean that all is well throughout publishing. But these authors are frequently told that a flat fee is all that's on offer.

And what they have to do for that fee... Books to be marketed in the US pose particular problems. There's the long list of silly things you can't mention lest they confuse the poor darlings: hedgehogs, sausages and free-standing wardrobes - a bit of a problem for the Narnia franchise, that. And the people complaining that the US is ignorant about the rest of the world likely include those so assiduously shielding them from the fact that it's, er, different out here...

Then there were the picture researchers who complained that they couldn't find photos of Atlantis, or of primordial slime. That goo was lucky to get in at all, since it's dangerously close to mentioning evolution, which is a no-no despite court rulings that it shouldn't be. Then there was the chapter on the history of Mexico that had the rape and pillage replaced with "the Spanish spread their culture through the land." This, an author comments, "sounds like a New York Times report on Iraq."

Some authors have told publishers they can't sign no-compete contracts and have negotiated less restrictive clauses. The Society of Authors is advising re-negotiation. General change across the industry will take some time. In the meantime, authors need to put their feet down about their moral right to defend the integrity of the work, in order at least to see the stupid changes.

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