. What do these writers have in common? Audrey Niffenegger, Susan Vreeland, Don Miguel Ruiz, Dave Eggers, Bonnie Carlson, Patricia Henley, Caroline Kellems, and Amanda Eyre Ward? Some are authors with big followings. Others are authors you’ve never heard of. However, each of these authors has dealt with publishers who’ve gone bankrupt. They’ve all faced the headache of getting back their rights. Some regrouped. Others became discouraged and put their energy elsewhere. Of course, the rights weren’t the only problem.
In many cases the bankrupt publisher failed to pay royalties. One publisher struggled along and tried to make amends. Others wound up in court. Meanwhile, the authors were left in limbo—waiting, wondering if they were going to be like the proverbial bride left standing at the altar. Here’s the moral of the story. As in marriage, a publishing deal may fail to be consummated. And, even when it is, the deal may not last forever. Sometimes, you’re better off cutting the ties and starting again.
This post is about reversion of rights and regaining control of your work. Because I’m going to be talking about the legalities of publishing, a subject that’s intrinsically boring, I want to start with three examples. Just to make it real, you know?
A Lock on the Door
In October, 2013 I was in New Orleans at the annual Faulkner-Wisdom competition, a yearly event that gathered writers from around the country. While there, I was hanging out with Caroline Kellems, whose publisher, MacAdam/Cage, teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. The man in charge, David Poindexter, had not been returning Kellems’ phone calls. She was co-owner of a coffee business in Guatemala, and she had come up to the United States to see what was going on. At that point, she didn’t know where her books were, and there was a lock on the warehouse door. (Her novel, The Coffee Diary, is currently available on Amazon, but her second novel never got off the ground.)
Two Students Originally Thrilled, Then Discouraged
Before the whole Covid thing sent us all into lockdown, I taught a novel-writing class for the Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State. Two of my students made great progress and sent their manuscripts out into the world. Coincidentally, their books were accepted by the same publisher.
Now why had my students thought that particular publisher might be good? The publisher had a New York address. They didn’t charge fees (so that didn’t seem to be a vanity press). And, my students didn’t want to have to learn how to publish and promote their own books. They wanted to spend their time writing. Of course. We all do. For those of us who did not grow up in the age of social media, it’s not a big thrill to market books.
I spoke to Bonnie Carlson recently and asked how the writing was going. “I’m discouraged,” she said.
“How so?” I asked.
The publisher had moved to Portugal, leaving a trail of broken promises.
“Actually, the best thing you ever told me was to join the Authors Guild,” Bonnie said. Through the Guild’s group chat, she had learned about a Facebook group. She and other disillusioned authors had banded together. The Authors Guild was helping them with a reversion of rights. (If you’d like to take a look at her book, Amazon has copies of Radical Acceptance for sale, but there’s no eBook at the moment.) Bonnie is still regrouping.
The Validation Factor
I’ll use myself as the third example. I spent twelve years writing and revising my first novel, Montpelier Tomorrow. Then, I took it to writing conferences to see if I could corral an agent. “I loved it,” one agent at the Faulkner-Wisdom conference told me, “but it’s not commercial enough.” Another agent told me the novel was fine, but that I was too old, and he’d never be able to find a publisher willing to “take me on.” It seems that publishers wanted younger writers who would have many more books ahead of them.
So, okay. Plan B. I sent the book to publishers who would take submissions from “unagented” writers. My search turned into my nonfiction book, The Big Book of Small Presses & Independent Publishers. Almost by return mail came an acceptance from All Things That Matter Press. I was euphoric. Over the moon. I could concentrate on what I did best—the writing itself.
As you can probably guess, what I had needed all along was validation. I disdained the whole self-publishing enterprise and failed to see what fun the entrepreneurial writers around me were having. They were full of energy and glee. But, no. I was old school. I wanted a REAL EDITOR, someone outside my sphere of writing friends, an editor who would pat me on the head.
They sent a contract. The contract contained a clause saying that they would publish the book for seven years. They would have one year to decide whether or not to make an audiobook, and if they decided the book was worth it, then they would sign a contract with Audible, a contract that ran seven years and that was unbreakable. Altogether, the contract laid out an eight-year working relationship between me and my publisher. At the end of that period, I could write and ask for a reversion of rights.
POD Publishing Was All New to Me
The publisher did an excellent job editing and proofreading. Until the book came out, I was content. But what I hadn’t understood was that the press was a Print-On-Demand publisher (POD). (I’ve written about POD publishers here.) When I took my newly minted book to Changing Hands, Phoenix’s fabulous independent bookstore, I hoped they would give it some shelf space. Instead, they told me they don’t carry POD books. I hand-carried it to an independent bookstore in North Carolina where my daughter lives. Same response.
The long and the short of it is that potential readers who dislike Amazon’s monopolistic practices can order your book at an independent bookstore, but the bookstore will not stock your title unless you bring them books on consignment. The shelf space in bookstores is reserved for the Big Five (now the Big Four) New York publishers.
This news came as a shock. A book was a book. How could they tell? The trim size, they said. Most POD books are 6 x 9, the most economical size—in terms of paper and shipping costs—to produce.
I swallowed hard. If I couldn’t get local bookstores to carry my book, then how would I ever let the world know it existed? Thunderstruck, I realized I would have to learn how to market my book, the very thing I’d tried to avoid.
I wasn’t totally in the dark. The publisher provided a fact sheet with lots of ideas. However, the fact sheet was overwhelming. I wasn’t on social media, and it seemed like book promotion revolved around joining Facebook groups and relentlessly pimping the book on Twitter. By the time I learned the basics, the new book was yesterday’s news.
What Can Go Wrong?
I’m going to step back from my own situation and generalize about situations that might make you want to get back your rights. I’ll lay these out as bullet points.
- The publisher has control of the cover and either designs their own cover or chooses a cover that doesn’t match the genre.
- The publisher charges a price that’s so high, even your family and friends shrink from purchasing a copy.
- The publisher, in the interests of profitability, leaves very little white space around the edges of the page or uses a small typeface. Reading the book kills your eyes.
- The publisher demands that you buy 50 to 100 copies, and by that, they mean the retail price. (This practice is almost a given when the market is tiny, as it is with poetry.)
- Even if you’re doing a reading, the publisher refuses to provide copies at cost, meaning the print cost—whatever Amazon or Ingram charges to print the book.
- The publisher asks that you go with them to the Frankfurt Book Fair in order to promote your book. (This is a scam to get you to pay for their trip.)
- The publisher has a website that looks like it was designed in 1970.
- The publisher does nothing—zilch, nada—to promote your book.
- The book sells one or two copies a quarter—less than 10 a year—but it is still selling, so the publisher refuses to revert your rights.
- The publisher produces an audio book on Audible and signs an unbreakable, 7-year contract with Amazon. They are locked in with Amazon, so you are locked in until the audio book contract runs its course.
- The publisher does not help you launch the book, nor do they communicate about the timing of said launch.
- The publisher has control of the book files so that you cannot advertise on Amazon, and they refuse to lower the price so that you can run an effective “on sale” campaign on social media.
- The publisher never pays, or stops paying, royalties.
- You write a nice letter asking if there’s any chance—please, please, please—that they could give you your rights back before the appointed date. No, they say. You are forced to suck it up.
Other Problems with Rights
I could go on and on. There are interesting permutations of the problems above. (Cengage is an academic publisher that signed contracts with overseas publishers, even though authors had not granted overseas rights for their course materials to be distributed abroad.) There are mainstream publishers who sell no more than three or four books a year. When you try to get your rights back, your request languishes at the bottom of their inbox. We’re not talking weeks here. We’re talking months.
And there are publishers who allow your book to go out of print, but still will not provide a letter saying that they will revert your rights. (And, if you intend to take your work to another publishing house, Amazon will require a letter on the previous publisher’s letterhead stating that your rights have been reverted. That’s even the case if you’re self-publishing using Amazon’s KDP tools.
You should know that many of the Big Five publishers do allow books to go out of print. Readers who discover a writer whose work they love can no longer get that writer’s backlist in a way that pays you a royalty. Readers are forced to buy a used book, which pays the writer nothing. That’s why many writers seek a reversion of rights—so they can republish the books that have gone out of print. The undeniable benefit of a POD book is that it’s printed on demand, one book at a time. Your book will never go out of print.
Have I made you think that possibly you should try to get back your rights? Okay, now what?
The Straightest Path to a Reversion of Rights
Unhappy subscribers have written me for years, asking how they could get out of their contracts. The main reason is underperformance by the publisher. No reviews. No royalties. A realization that they would have been better off self-publishing.
If you decide to take that path, start by regaining control of your creative work. The Authors Alliance has an interactive, editable pdf that walks you through the process of getting back your rights. Even if you do not have a reversion-of-rights clause in your contract, all is not lost. Work through the process by filling out their form.
The Alliance for Independent Authors, a great organization that supports indie authors, has a helpful guide that will also point you in the right direction. ALLI has a worldwide focus, so if you’re an author in Great Britain or Europe, this would be the resource for you.
But what if you could have prevented all this hassle?
Get a Reversion-of-Rights Clause in Your Contract
Knowing that marriages between authors and publishers do not always work out, it’s best if you have a prenuptial agreement. Read Victoria Strauss’s post on the website Writer Beware. The information is clear and succinct. Writer Beware is a great website, in any case. If a publisher has shady practices, Writer Beware will know about it.
If you’re a writer working with a publisher, have a firm grip on all the legal side of the writing business. Two lawyers, Tad Crawford and Kay Murray, have written a book that should be on every writer’s desk: The Writer’s Legal Guide. It covers reversion of rights clauses and a lot more.
Do not enter into a publishing agreement without due diligence. If you are a member of the Authors Guild, its lawyers will look over your contract to make sure you’re not signing away your first-born child. Make sure the contract has a reversion of rights clause. Make sure the clause is specific and detailed. (Don’t ever sign a contract that says the publisher owns the rights to your book until the copyright expires.)
Cause for Celebration
So why are reversion of rights issues on my mind at this very moment? My debut novel, Montpelier Tomorrow, was published in 2013. It won a number of awards from indie book competitions, including a Gold Medal for Drama from Readers’ Favorites.
In January, the rights reverted back to me. Now, the ball’s in my court. I’ve reedited the book and am publishing a revised version. I know a lot more about marketing than I did back then. I hope I can put what I learned into practice and help new readers discover the book. The official launch day is March 14, 2023. This is a new beginning for a book I’m very glad I wrote. Readers who’ve been involved in caregiving have told me the book meant a lot.
I’ll be talking about what needs to happen to relaunch a book in a forthcoming post, including the issue of reviews carrying forward. There are some downsides to having to do this, but also some pluses.