Over the last couple of years, a number of writers have written to me to ask how to get the rights to their traditionally published novels reverted back to them.
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Some contracts are short, some are ten and twenty pages long. Each contract will delineate what the rights licensed are, what the publisher will pay the writer for the use of those rights, and when the contract expires. All contracts need an end date to be legal, and so you’d think that book contract would have a set time period. It’s pretty convenient: both parties know the contract expires on a specific date. The contract can be renegotiated around the time of expiration or renewed on a yearly basis, until one party decides to cancel the contract, or, or, or…
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Back to reversion clauses. They are not created equal. But there are some commonalities in book contracts that I can talk about in general.
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Over the decades, book contracts evolved to avoid the time-limit. Instead, the ticking clock would start once the book was officially “out of print” which was usually defined in a contract (if defined at all) as unavailable for sale. At that point, the author would notify the publisher that she wanted all rights reverted and the publisher either had to do so, or would have a set amount of time (generally six months) to reissue the book.
Of course, there were a dozen permutations of that. I’ve seen some contracts that would not allow a rights reversion for seven years after the date of the contract even if the book went out of print in the very first year. The publisher in that case had no obligation to reissue the book and could sit on the rights for six years. At the end of the seventh year, the publisher would still have the option of putting the book back into print if the publisher did so within a six month window after the writer informed the publisher that she wanted the rights back.
Why would a publisher have this clause? Imagine this: in the six years that the publisher ignored this out-of-print book, the writer went from relative unknown to a bestseller. Even if she became a bestseller under another name, the publisher would want the right to reissue that old book. That’s why you often saw things like Famous Writer writing as Not-So-Famous Writer on book covers, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. Those writers had signed bad contracts early, and were paying for it years later.
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In fact, back then, only weird or pushy writers would ask for rights reversions. In the 1970s and earlier, rights reversions were important because other publishing houses would buy backlist, but by 1990, that concept was disappearing. So writers just didn’t ask. Or they’d instruct their agent to get the reversions, and the agents either wouldn’t do it at all or wouldn’t follow up.
And getting reversions, even then, required a lot of follow-up.
By the late 1990s, printing technology changed, and print-on-demand books became easier to do. Publishers started using print-on-demand suppliers to do second, third, and fourth printings of backlist titles. Those printings might have been as small as 100 copies. By the mid-2000s, such practices were common.
As usual, writers and their agents were behind the curve on this thing, and only recently started adding the phrase along the lines of “the availability of a print-on-demand edition of the book does not count toward the in-print definition in this contract.”
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So agents and authors tried to define the end of a contract by sales velocity. If a book sold fewer than 500 copies in a six-month period (for example), then that book would be considered out of print, and would, for the sake of the contract, be eligible for reversion.
The problem here? The only way the writer knows what the book’s sales are is through the royalty report generated by the publisher. And, as we’ve seen in other blog posts, those reports are rarely accurate. Plus, if the book sold fewer than 500 copies in a six-month period, the writer would have to wait until the reporting time after that period ended. Which gives the publisher even more time to hang onto the rights.
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At the dawn of this new century, it became very hard to get rights reversions. It became even harder in the past five years as the e-book revolution hit traditional publishing.
If an old publishing contract contained e-book rights, and that e-book was available, did that constitute in-print? Traditional publishers said yes; writers and their advocates said no. The courts will eventually decide a lot of these cases.
Writers and agents again tried to close the barn door after the horses got out by trying to define e-book velocity as out of print. If, for example, the e-book sold fewer than 100 copies in a six-month period, then the book would be considered out of print. But that barn door remained wide open, since most writers and agents did not exclude free e-books from the sales figures. So if a publisher wanted to hang onto rights, he could offer the book for free for a few days, the “sales” would go up, and the book would not revert.
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Which is why I’ve started recommending to writers that if they want to have a traditional publishing contract for their book, that contract has to have a limited term. The contract can exist for ten years from the date of the contract (or seven from the date of publication, which may not be unreasonably delayed), and can be renewed at the same or more favorable terms.
That’s how all of my foreign contracts work and most of my Hollywood contracts have worked. In fact, all of my subsidiary rights contracts work like that. But my former traditional book publishers in the United States have all balked at that suggestion—so I walked.
Everything Kris writes about the business of writing should be required reading for anyone who wants to be a professional author. Go read the entire essay and don’t forget to hit Kris’ tip jar. It’s way cheaper than an MBA.
Out of print or reversion of rights clauses are typically the most opaque of any in today’s publishing contracts. Given the clarity of other clauses in those contracts, PG can only assume the opaque nature of these clauses is intended to make the process of regaining rights to even the most poorly-selling book one that overwhelms the author with its complexity. Even understanding when it might be possible to start the process of reverting rights can be a complex undertaking.
In PG’s experience, one of the few exceptions to this rule that occurs with any frequency is if the author is negotiating a new publishing agreement for a new book the publisher really wants and makes amending prior agreements a condition for signing a contract for the new book.