Format has been a long-simmering topic of debate in book publishing, and the question of when, and if, a title is published in hardcover, paperback, and/or digital has become even more pressing as bricks-and-mortar bookstores dwindle and e-book sales grow. The idea that any standard deal from a major publisher guarantees a print format release—which was previously a foregone conclusion—is something agents no longer take for granted, with some expressing concern that the big houses are starting to hedge on print editions in contracts.

While e-book-only agreements are nothing new—all large publishers have imprints that are exclusively dedicated to digital titles—a handful of agents, all of whom spoke to PW on the condition of anonymity, said they’re worried that contracts from print-first imprints will increasingly come with clauses indicating that the publisher makes no guarantee on format. The agents say this is a new twist to the standard way of doing business.

While sources acknowledged that contracts from print-first imprints (as opposed to e-only ones) featuring clauses that give the publisher the freedom to decide on format are not new, the feeling is that these clauses are the exception, not the rule. Recently, though, a handful of agents have expressed concerns about print imprints refusing to commit on this issue.

Most of the big five houses PW contacted declined to respond to inquiries on the matter, saying that they don’t comment on contract negotiations. While some agents said they fear that Random House (and, possibly, the larger merged entity of Penguin Random House) is preparing to add a clause to its boilerplate indicating that it doesn’t commit to a format, a spokesman for the publisher shot down this notion. Penguin Random House’s Stuart Applebaum told PW that no change has taken place: “The suggestion that Penguin Group (USA) LLC and Random House LLC are changing their standard boilerplate contracts so as to limit publishing formats is not correct. Each of our author contracts continue to be negotiated individually, and confidentially.”

Asked about its contract boilerplate, a spokesperson for Hachette Book Group also refuted any suggestion of a change: “At HBG, we always endeavor to have our contracts conform to current practices, but we’re a full-service publisher and physical copies will continue to be included in HBG’s standard contract boilerplate.”

One of the difficulties with reporting on changes to book publishing contracts is that all new contracts, as Applebaum rightly noted, are open to negotiation. However, there are standards of doing business, and the agents speaking out said they feared that if vague language about format begins to crop up on a regular basis, they will need to start advocating for a format they were universally guaranteed in the past.

Despite their dismay, agents and other insiders who spoke to PW said they were not necessarily surprised by the move, given the current marketplace. There is growing pressure on publishers to release books quickly, and to do so in the formats that will bring in the most revenue. Because so many book deals are made well in advance of the titles’ release dates, publishers have always had to gauge the future relevancy of topics and authors. Now publishers also have to attempt to anticipate the future bricks-and-mortar landscape when signing contracts. As some insiders explained, it’s a very different situation when the question goes from, “How many copies will Barnes & Noble take?” to “Will Barnes & Noble be around?”

Lloyd Jassin, an attorney who specializes in publishing, said a shift away from promising print editions is “a logical reaction to a changing industry.” If publishers increasingly hedge on committing to a print format, Jassin explained, they can take the questions about potential manufacturing losses out of the equation and focus on “building careers, not sell-through.”

For authors, though, a contract without a print guarantee is an uncomfortable bargain. And Jassin also recognizes that. “If a publisher doesn’t have a financial stake in the books they publish, cynics will say there’s no guarantee they will promote [them].”

Many of the agents PW spoke to are being cynical. For a certain class of author—major bestsellers and those with significant platforms—this shift would not matter. But for first-time authors, and those without consistently strong sales records (which entails the midlist and below), a publisher’s refusal to commit to a print edition could be a very tough pill to swallow.

Agents fear the change would mean less money for them, and their clients. Contracts that are vague on format give publishers the wiggle room to opt out of costlier-to-produce print books, which generally have higher price points than e-books and, in turn, bring authors higher royalties. One agent said a move like this would be terrible for retail booksellers and added that it would “further erode the revenue streams for authors.” Another said the big concern is that “e-books will become the dumping ground for books that publishers are losing excitement for.” This agent added: “To us, this is a very slippery slope, considering the fickle nature of the business.”

Another reaction big publishers may face, if they sign fewer agreements that guarantee print releases, is the question of their own value. While publishers continue to point to the myriad services they offer authors as testament to their worth—from advances to editing and marketing—for many authors, the biggest value-add publishers bring to the table is their ability to get print books into stores. So, what happens when publishers stop regularly committing to print editions? Jassin said publishers will need to start marketing themselves differently. “If [bookstore] distribution is no longer king, the challenge for the big five, or their conspicuous weakness, is how to market their editorial, design, and marketing services as invaluable.”

Richard Curtis, agent and founder of the e-book publisher E-Reads, said he has seen this issue brewing for some time. A few years ago, when the big houses started releasing more e-originals, Curtis started examining their standard contracts and wasn’t able to find any provision guaranteeing release in a print format. Curtis also believes that many of the early e-originals published by the big houses were initially intended to be released as print titles. When the publishers realized, well after signing, that the titles had “no chance of recouping their investment if issued first in print,” he explained, they opted for e-only releases.

Now that e-only imprints abound, Curtis believes the big houses have entered murkier waters on format guarantees. The more major houses move to a model of testing out titles in digital before committing to print, Curtis said, the more they will “lose the most prominent aspect of their identity, and their reason for being.”