One of the most common (and most awful) things I see author go through is when they begin asking publishers for rights back to their work. Some publishers are very gracious and easy to work with, but many are not. This is partly becasue they invest so much money into a book or series that they need to hold those rights to get a return for their investment, others are simply unwilling to let go of properties that still earn them bucks, and more still simply don’t want the hassle of releasing their authors, becasue it means more time and more money in paperwork and legal fees.
To those of you negotiating contracts for the first time or without the help of a good agent or legal advisor, I say this. Make sure that the language is in your favor. You’d be amazed how many contracts say things like “Author can request a revision of rights any time after the initial contract term with thirty days notice” or something very similar. But do you see the problem? It says only that you can request, not that they have to allow it. Consider asking for a change of verbiage, or setting minimum sales thresholds such as “if sales dip below XX units sold per quarter, rights are automatically reverted to the author” or even setting a hard exit date “rights revert back to the author after (DATE) unless an extension is requested and signed by the publisher and author”. You might also want to add a clause that if your book is published with substantial errors which damage the credibility of the work, they can either fix it or revert it and set a time limit for that to happen. Set time limits for them to respond to reversal inquiries, make sure that if your book ever goes off sale or out of print that you get those rights back immediately.
I’ve had two experiences with asking for my rights back on books. The first time I sent an email inquiring about it, I received a blanket NO. They are a super small publisher who demands to keep the books despite the fact that they do not sell (I’m talking pennies a quarter, if that) and they have those rights for upwards of 15 years. All becasue I went in to the contract naive and thinking I could trust them to look after my interests. Let me be clear, publishers are not bad people (mostly) but their contracts are drawn up to give them every advantage.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate. It’s expected, I promise.
The second time, (with a different publisher) I asked (begged, then demanded) my rights back, it took many years and so much anger and frustration that I nearly quit the business. My small publisher had been sold and the new publisher was refusing to address editorial issues and other things with my book. Again, they were happy to hold onto it and keep making money off me. Months would pass with no royalty checks or statements, and when they did come in they were always incorrect, I’d been ignored both by email and telephone. There was a stretch of over a year when no one would speak to me at all. It was a nightmare. And with all this (and other things), they were wildly in breech of contract. But guess what? The only way for me to enforce the contract was to hire an expensive lawyer and have them served with official paperwork. For many authors in that house, that is exactly what they had to do. Then, eventually, the publisher began settling and reverting. All said and done, I was forced to buy out my contract for a hefty sum (a shady deal if there ever was one). I paid it just to be done with it all. But many other authors I know weren’t able to come up with the funds, and languish there still.
These are just my horror stories. If you know an author (and odds are you do), ask them about it. If they haven’t been through it personally, they know someone who has. You probably heard about the Ellora’s Cave riots or the New Concepts Publishing nonsense. But you may not have heard about the multitudes of others, legitimate, sometimes traditional publishing houses, which are doing the same things.
Again, with most reputable houses, these sorts of things won’t be an issue, but with smaller publishers, newer publishers, or digital publishers, it is a trend I’m seeing more and more. Either they don’t know how to or don’t care to take care of their authors. And that’s the problem. It’s made worse by the fact that so many new authors are joining the ranks every year, that they are getting talked into contracts that don’t benefit them and are too green to know that they can ask for better. And for those trapped in the tar pits of reversal, I wish there was something I could do to help. Truly. But, alas, there is no advice I can give at that point, only very clear hindsight.
Be aware that there are some things that are fairly standard with regard to revisions of rights such as:
- A publisher may ask you to either buy out your remaining print stock (at cost) or ask for the rights to sell them as remainders. This is how places like the dollar store gets books. The Publisher sells them at bottom dollar just to cover their costs and empty their warehouse. They may also reserve the right to continue to sell any copies currently on hand at places like Amazon and B&N. You SHOULD receive royalties for theses sales, but you probably won’t.
- You will almost never get rights to the artwork or any other marketing materials they’ve done for your book. The cover, the images they used for ads, it all belongs to them. Some even claim the interior formatting as theirs which means you can’t just re-use the same final files.
- If you did not register the work with the Library of Congress yourself, you will need to do that. It’s not horrifically expensive, but it needs to be done. Some houses do it for you, others require you do it yourself. If they did it, ask for the original certificate be sent to you.
- You will lose your reviews. If you have 500 reviews on Amazon, then the instant that book is off sale, those reviews are no longer attached to the book. What I mean is this, they will still show up on the archived page for that edition of the book, but if you re-publish either yourself or with a new publisher, those reviews do not follow the book. You will be starting from scratch with zero reviews (at least on Amazon).
- There are a dozen clauses in your contract that you will think you understand but don’t. Minimum sales thresholds, reserves against returns, rights of first refusal. These are all places you can potentially get burned, but are also very standard in all contracts. I can’t recommend strongly enough that you get a skilled agent or entertainment lawyer to read over all this for you and help you adjust the verbiage so that it is more in your favor.
I’m certainly not trying to frighten anyone and don’t go thinking that publishers have it out for you, becasue they don’t. But this is a business. They pay lawyers lots of money to make sure that their contracts benefit them as much as possible, not so they can deliberately screw you, but to protect them and their investment. The way you level the playing field is by asking for changes or adjustments. Contracts should be a negotiation, not a shotgun wedding. If they are being unreasonable or unwavering, then is that really who you want to be working with in the long run?
Now, to request your rights back, begin with a letter. If you have an agent or lawyer, have them do this. If not, here’s basically what your letter should include:
Begin with your book title, publication date, and the date your contract was signed as well as any specific revision language you are addressing. (Example, “Section 4 paragraph 3 of the signed agreement states: If Fewer than 100 copies sold in the previous 12 consecutive months…”) or whatever you are using as cause to reverse should be included. This should be very professional and calm, no angry all caps YOU TOOK MY BOOK OFF SALE FOR THREE WEEKS AND I WANT MY RIGHTS BACK NOW. That is a great way to shut down negotiations before they begin. Indicate how you have met the revision requirements (Example: “Between August 1, 2014 and July 31, 2015 Title X sold 90 copies”) and state that you are requesting the rights be returned to you. If you don’t meet your contract’s reversion stipulations, simply request that the publisher terminate the contract and return your rights to you. If there’s an objective reason you can cite–low sales, for instance, or your own inability to promote the book–do so, even if those reasons are not mentioned in the contract as a condition of reversion.
Don’t air your dirty laundry or make accusations about the publisher. Bringing up their mistakes or failures may sate your anger, but it will make them less likely to want to work with you amicably. Request they send you an official reversal letter and any stipulations for revision (see the list above as examples of things to expect). Again, be polite, professional, and kind. Give them a time frame to respond to your request, thirty days is standard. Be sure you include all the ways they can contact you, mailing address, phone, etc.
This letter should be sent by email and, if possible, by certified snail mail as well.
If you are going through this, you have my deepest sympathy. It’s not fun for anyone, and I know just how much heartache it can cause. If you are in need of help, I suggest you check out The Author’s Alliance. They have great info and people that can help you if need be. Good luck my friends, and remember that this is all a learning process and as much as it sucks now, the experience you gain will be more valuable than gold.