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Originally published May 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 21, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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In print forever? Sometimes, authors would rather go out of print

The offer from Simon & Schuster seems ideal: Let us publish your book and it will never go out of print. Even if it sells just one copy...

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — The offer from Simon & Schuster seems ideal: Let us publish your book and it will never go out of print. Even if it sells just one copy a year, we'll keep it available, thanks to digital technology.

And that, says the Authors Guild, which represents thousands of published writers, is unacceptable.

"A publisher is meant to publish, to get out there and sell our books," Guild president, author and humorist Roy Blount Jr. said Thursday in a statement. "A publishing house is not supposed to be a place where our books are permanently squirreled away."

Simon & Schuster, Random House, Inc. and Penguin Group USA are among the publishers who say that they are letting fewer and fewer books go out of print because of print on demand, or POD, which emerged a decade ago. Print on demand allows slow-selling titles to stay available by keeping them on a computer database and printing copies upon request, instead of keeping unsold texts stored in a warehouse, a system long regarded as costly and inefficient.

"We try to keep a book in print as long as possible, and print on demand now makes that easier than ever before," said Hyperion president Bob Miller.

Contracts from the vast majority of publishers include boilerplate language requiring a minimum number of annual sales, often 150-250, for the book to be considered "in print," meaning rights belong to the publisher, not the author. Simon & Schuster has removed that language, says Authors Guild executive director Paul Aiken. He said he was alerted to the change last week by an author and agent, both of whom he declined to identify, and he later confirmed it with the publisher.

"The problem isn't what's in the contract, but what's not in it," Aiken told The Associated Press.

Simon & Schuster spokesman Adam Rothberg defended the new contract, saying Thursday that it "reflects the improved technology, the increased availability and the higher quality of the print on demand format."

"This is an opportunity for us to embrace this new technology, and an opportunity for us to sell books, make them available for sale, over a longer period of time, and over wider distribution," he said.

In an AP interview last week, before the Authors Guild's concerns were known, Simon & Schuster president and CEO Jack Romanos said that in an ideal market the only books he could envision going out of print were time-sensitive works such as tax guides. (Rothberg emphasized Thursday that the company would remain open to discussion of a given book's status, after publication, on a "case by case basis.")

Romanos told the AP that fiction titles especially should never go out of print. That opinion was seconded by HarperCollins president and CEO Jane Friedman, also interviewed last week.

"No. In one word, no. There is no reason for a fiction title to go out of print, because you never known when there is going to be an audience for that book," she said. On Thursday, HarperCollins spokeswoman Erin Crum declined comment when asked by the AP whether the publisher would change its contract language along lines similar to Simon & Schuster's.

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No one likes to see their work out of print, but writers, agents and even publishers say that sometimes it's better to let a book go and return rights to the author. A writer may suddenly become a best seller and his or her previous works become more in demand, or the author may feel a publisher has given up on a book and that a different publisher would try harder to promote it.

"Many agents (myself included) are now demanding that in order for a publisher to comply with their 'in print' minimums, they must generate a certain amount of physical sales (normally 1,500-to-2,500-copy minimum)," said literary agent Larry Kirshbaum, former head of Warner Books.

"In many instances, publishers won't be able to keep their rights to an author simply by generating POD sales."

But Kirshbaum acknowledged that it's "writers with clout" who can demand such terms. The Authors Guild on Thursday sent an alert to members urging them not to sign with Simon & Schuster or include them in bidding for a manuscript unless they agree to "use industry standard terms."

"Remember that if you sign a contract with Simon & Schuster that includes this clause, they'll say you're wed to them," the alert reads. "Your book will live and die with this particular conglomerate."

Rothberg said the Guild was "overreacting."

"They're talking about the worst possible result," he said. "This (the new contract) is about embracing a new opportunity."

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