Rights Reversion: How to Give an Out-of-Print Book New Life with Self-Publishing

From Writer Unboxed:

Women’s fiction author Densie Webb [asked]:

“The rights to my first book (with a small publisher) revert back to me in January. I’ve thought about self-publishing, but I don’t have a clue how to go about it.” Densie asked for help evaluating the decision, a simple step-by-step process for self-publishing a book, and inexpensive resources to help her navigate the process.

As a creative entrepreneur, I think Densie has an exciting opportunity on her hands, and I’m thrilled to help her consider her options. But before we dive in, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that rights reversion is a nuanced topic largely dictated by the author’s publishing contract. We’re not going down that rabbit hole today, but to learn more about rights reversion, check out Authors Alliance’s free guide, “Understanding Rights Reversion: When, Why & How to Regain Copyright and Make Your Book More Available.”

For the sake of exploring Densie’s situation, I’ll assume all rights will revert to her and she will have complete creative control over her work.

Is There Value in Self-Publishing an Out-of-Print Book?

At some point in your writing career, you might find yourself in a position like Densie’s, weighing whether it’s worth your time, energy, and money to self-publish a title that has reverted to you. I liken the situation to owning a rental property and letting it sit vacant. Your book is an asset, and sidelining it feels like a missed opportunity. Assuming the subject matter is not obsolete, you can leverage your book to expand readership, promote other titles, and generate income for the rest of your life and 70 years after your death (if it was created on or after January 1, 1978; learn more about copyright duration).

Rights reversion can open a world of new possibilities for you and your book, not the least of which is a do over. If you didn’t like your publisher’s cover or title, this is your chance to change it. If the publisher only exploited some of the rights it purchased, you now have the freedom to release the book in new formats, translate it into different languages, and expand distribution to new platforms and geographies. This can also be an opportune time to take a bold new marketing approach—or at least update your book’s front matter to showcase your full list of titles and its back matter with a call to action for readers, such as leaving a review, signing up for your email list, and/or following you on social media.

Can Self-Publishing Rejuvenate Low Sales?

There’s nothing like low sales to shake an author’s confidence. But rather than letting it send you into a negative shame spiral, see it for what it is: a symptom. Your job is to uncover a symptom of what?

Conduct a post-mortem investigation of your book’s previous publication lifecycle to identify what went wrong and build a new plan to increase its chances of success.

Consider questions like:

  • How was your book positioned in the market? Did the previous publisher target the right audience? Was it listed in the right categories on booksellers’ websites? Are there opportunities for you to position it differently?
  • How does the cover compare to competitive titles in your category? Does it stand out and grab readers’ attention, or is it a wallflower among the pack?
  • Is the book’s description as compelling as it could be? Does it sound current or outdated? Does it hook readers and leave them wanting more?
  • What did readers think of the story? Read the book’s reviews to learn what resonated with readers and where they felt the story fell short. Is there an opportunity to strengthen the story?
  • What kind of marketing and public relations activities did the publisher use to promote your book before, during, and after its launch? Did you participate in a book tour or blog tour? Did you guest post on relevant blogs and websites or participate in podcast interviews? Did you hold giveaways or price promotions? What promotional activities earned the best results? What types of activities were missing from your mix?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG says the OP is well worth reading for any traditionally-published author. So is the Authors Alliance ebook on rights reversion that is discussed and linked-to in the OP.

However, in PG’s preternaturally-humble opinion, rights reversion provisions in 99.9% of the publishing contracts PG has read are a hot mess.

How does an author know if one or more of his/her/their books are out of “print”? PG doesn’t remember any traditional publishing agreement that required that the publisher to affirmatively notify the author if the author’s book was out of print.

Per the OP – If a hardcopy version is Print on Demand, is the book out of print? If that’s questionable, can the Publisher have twenty copies of the POD book printed, then stash them in a warehouse somewhere and only sell via POD?

Arguably, under the language of some out-of-print clauses would be effectively nullified by having a handful of copies sitting in the warehouse, priced however the publisher decides to price them, not listed in the publisher’s catalog and never mentioned by a publisher’s sales rep when speaking to a book store buyer.

Ebooks listed on Amazon are certainly available for the public to purchase, even if nobody every buys one because it’s priced at $49.95.

For PG, there is an obvious and equitable resolution to this archaic contract language. PG first came up with a nickname for this idea at least ten years ago, maybe longer.

Minimum Wage for Authors

PG’s idea is achingly simple and requires an answer to only one simple question:

“How much did the publisher pay the author in the author’s last royalty check?”

The publishing contract says, essentially (not legalese, but legalese for this concept is very simple):

“If publisher pays author less than $250 in royalties during any royalty reporting period, author may, by written notice to the publisher, terminate this publishing agreement and all rights granted to publisher under this agreement shall immediately revert to author and publisher shall have no further rights to the author’s book or any part of it.”

The key elements/benefits to this provision are simple:

  • There is no question regarding whether the out of print clause has or has not been triggered. How much was the check? Over or under the royalty number in the contract?
  • If the publisher really wants to keep publishing the book, the publisher can simply pay the $250 to the author and maintain the publisher’s rights to publish the book.
  • It would probably be a good idea to add a provision that requires the publisher to send the author a written, dated and signed document attesting that all rights to the book have reverted to the author and publisher has no further rights to publish or otherwise assert any claims to the book. However, even in the absence of such a document, the author could show a new publisher (or Amazon for self-publishing purposes) a copy of the original publishing contract and a copy of the check and/or royalty statement showing that less than $250 was paid.
  • Additionally, while PG isn’t any sort of tax expert, he believes that publishers are required to report payments they have made to authors to federal and state taxing authorities, at least in the US. All sorts of government penalties and fines come into play if the publisher doesn’t file such reports in an accurate and timely manner. A copy of the government filing showing how much the author received would be another way of conclusively showing the author’s rights had reverted.
  • Most publishing contracts saddle the author with the obligation to pay the publisher’s attorneys fees and costs in the event someone sues the publisher claiming the author stole the manuscript to the book and wasn’t the real author, etc., etc., etc. One additional filigree that could be included in a minimum wage for authors provision is that, if the publisher doesn’t promptly release its rights to the book if royalties don’t total $250 or more and author hires an attorney to enforce the author’s contract rights, the publisher pays the author’s reasonable attorneys fees.
  • If you want to relieve the publisher of the burden of paying attention to its business, you could add a provision that says if a publisher fails to pay the minimum royalty, author can send publisher a written notice to that effect and, if the publisher fails to pay the minimum royalty within 30 days of receiving the notice, the contract is terminated.

As mentioned earlier, a long time ago, PG first proposed this type of provision in lieu of traditional out-of-print clauses in publishing agreements.

PG is not aware of any argument or claim that this structure is unworkable or unfair to either the publisher or the author. If one of the many perceptive and highly-intelligent individuals who visit TPV sees a reason this concept might not work or that it would be grossly unfair to anyone, PG would be happy to review those reasons if inserted into a comment to this blog post.

PG has been wrong before and will, at some future date, be wrong again, but he thinks his proposal is pretty bullet-proof and establishes an unambiguous way of dealing with out of print issues.

4 thoughts on “Rights Reversion: How to Give an Out-of-Print Book New Life with Self-Publishing”

  1. I have a little side gig with the working title of “Book Resurrection” where I’ll help someone convert an older, out-of-print book to a digital solution for ebook and POD. This might involve some polishing of the writing, editing, proofing, new cover, formatting, and audiobook.

    In particular, I’m wanting to help families of WWII vets who wrote memoirs in the 1970s and 80s. Currently, I’m working with a title that had a 30-year publishing contract that terminated. It’s more a labor of love to help these families make these memoirs available for generations to come.

    So, I’m weak on publishing contracts. What are typical lengths or termination clauses for contracts? I suppose what was done forty years ago is much different today.

    • D – Unless a specific time period, e.g. 30-years, is specified, the most common duration is the term of the copyright, how long the author’s copyright to the book lasts.

      In the US, this is currently the remainder of the author’s life plus 70 years. Similar time periods apply in most other large Western countries that have strong copyright protections.

  2. As PG noted, everything depends on whether “all rights” reverted to the author, in writing. For just one stumbling block, if the tradpub also released an ebook edition, can it ever be said to be “out of print”? I don’t think so. One more reason I avoid tradpubs at all costs.

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