Publishers Must Update Health Books Before Going E

Many publishers of medical, health and fitness books are reissuing them as e-books without requiring them to be updated.  This is a potentially dangerous practice that may sooner or later get a publisher or author in trouble.

Book contract boilerplate commonly has language warranting that the book does not contain any harmful formulas, recipes or instructions. At the time of the book’s original publication all medical claims should have been completely valid.  Yet there are innumerable examples of foods and medicines considered safe and efficacious ten or twenty years ago that turned out to be the very opposite after research upended assumptions or discredited earlier findings. Margarine once recommended as a substitute for butter was discovered to contain harmful trans-fats. Some artificial sweeteners that seemed like a perfectly safe alternative to sugar have come to be suspected of being potentially carcinogenic. A diet heavy in certain kinds of fish may now also be heavy in mercury, and even the popular food pyramid that dominated dietary thinking for decades was heavy in carbohydrates and a serious contributor to today’s obesity crisis and has been reformulated.

Assuming that the publishers of those older titles have the right to put them into e-book format, the easy option is to reprint the content in its original form.  I’m not a lawyer and can’t say whether or not a publisher incurs liability for reissuing a book that contains debunked information.  But that would not prevent an aggrieved plaintiff from making a claim that the publisher should have known better than to promote a food or drug demonstrated to have adverse health effects.

I can personally testify to several instances where a publisher, contemplating an e-book edition of an old health book, asked the author to revise it but offered no compensation. When the author said he or she would not or could not update the book without being paid, the publisher asserted its right to release the original  edition, putting itself and the author in legal jeopardy. This is a disservice to author and reader alike.

If medical information is stale or has been disproved it is the publisher’s obligation to pay for an update. If it can’t afford to do so, it should let the book go out of print and give the rights back to the author.

Richard Curtis

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