The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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When Professor Irfan Habib published his seminal work, The Agrarian System of Mughal India, 1556-1797, in 1962 — which was a revised version of his doctoral thesis in Oxford — the book sold, to use publishing jargon, “like hot cakes”. Within a year or so, copies were scarce and not easily available. The publishers wanted to reprint the book but under the terms of the contract with Aligarh University, permission to reprint had first to be taken from the university.

Professor Habib wanted a revised edition to be published given the considerable amount of new material gathered after the first edition. The publishers, fearing that a revised edition would be tantamount to a new book altogether and they would therefore lose their rights, said that a revised edition could only be published after the first edition had been completely sold out. So, they kept back some 20-odd copies, which enabled them to maintain that the book was still in stock and therefore a revised edition could not be published. Both parties dug in their heels: the university refusing a straight reprint and the publisher to relinquish his rights and allow a revised updated edition. There the matter stood for years until the publisher relented — actually it had all but collapsed financially — and the revised edition was published in 2000.

Two questions. First, is a new edition a “new” book and does, therefore, a fresh contract need to be drawn up or at least the earlier contract suitably amended' Second, what does “out of print” mean' Can a publisher cussedly hang on to its rights merely by keeping a dozen-odd copies in stock'

A new edition, as distinct from a reprint, is a “new” book, irrespective of the extent of the revision carried out. Therefore a new contract must be drawn or the earlier one amended. (It is always better to start afresh.) The new contract/amendment means new royalty terms, as well as revision of earlier rights like translations, serializations, dramatization and so on. A recent case is Romila Thapar’s Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 published in 2002 by Allen Lane/Penguin. This book is a completely revised edition of Thapar’s A History of India, published by Penguin in 1966. Hence a new contract and a new copyright notice. Some publishers duck the issue of a new contract/amendments, or at least do not bring it to the attention of authors who are often innocent of the fine print in contracts. But a new edition is a new book, and requires revisions or a new contract.

“Out of stock” or “out of print” are trickier terms to define. In commonsensical terms it means a title that is no longer available for sale. (A few copies are always kept back for records.) The crucial term is for sale. If publishers keep back 20-odd copies merely to maintain that the title is still in stock and therefore rights cannot be surrendered, they cannot be technically faulted but it is a stick-in-the-mud attitude that doesn’t do them any good. Sadly, there is little that the author can do except perhaps to buy back the entire stock or get stuck in the courts. Both are expensive in time and money: the publisher may demand a hefty price before issuing an “out-of-stock” certificate; the legal route is always expensive and frustrating. The easier way would be to wear the publisher down in the hope that he would agree to a mutual divorce than hang on to a failed marriage.

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