I was thrilled when my publisher asked me to write a coffee table book about hummingbirds. As an avid bird watcher who had traveled to South America to see and photograph hummingbirds, it was an opportunity to write about one of my passions. The caveat? A “work made for hire” contract. Of course, this type of contract is not unusual for coffee table books, which tend to sell fewer copies than the average title. I wanted very much to write the book, and they would pay me extra for some of my photos. So, I signed the contract. That was in 2002.
Fast forward to early 2007. A Google alert I had set up for my name led me to a new page on Amazon.com listing a book by … guess who? My publisher had obviously released a second printing of my hummingbird book with a new cover. The publisher never advised me that they were re-issuing the book, nor did they offer me any copies of this new printing. Assuming the inside of the book would be the same as its first incarnation, I simply ordered a copy from Amazon.
When the book arrived, I was shocked to discover that the text had been almost completely rewritten with only a few of my original paragraphs. Some of the birds were identified incorrectly in the photographs, and none of my own photographs were included. (Of course, they were smart to exclude my photographs because the contract I signed for my images granted only one-time usage.)
Here was a book on the market with my name on the cover, and I had had nothing whatsoever to do with what appeared within its pages. When I signed the WMFH contract, I gave away copyright of my original manuscript, and I received no royalties. The contract did not give the publisher permission to use my name in any way it saw fit, however. I potentially have a case for “misappropriation of name,” but the attorneys for the Authors Guild have advised me that after having kissed my copyright goodbye, I would probably lose such a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, the representatives at the publisher sent a half-hearted apology when they received my angry email. They said that no one had ever complained about having their name on a book, to which I responded that some authors actually care more about their reputations than the supposed prestige of having their names on “just any old book covers.”
I never dreamed that signing away the copyright to my manuscript could have the potential of putting my reputation at risk. When I wish to interview ornithologists or pitch a publication such as Audubon Magazine, my credibility is now seriously impaired. This could even inhibit my ability to publish another book about birds.
Certainly I feel the publisher overstepped the bounds of the contract, but signing such a contract left me vulnerable to this kind of treatment. So, where does this leave you when you