The news that a major small publisher was closing hit everyone by surprise some days ago. This publisher (I’m not naming names because this post isn’t about them but more general than that) took a very honest, classy approach, continuing to release books that were ready and selling stock still while they begin to wind down. By comparison, many other places abruptly close and revert all rights at once; some have even been known to disappear altogether, leaving writers in the lurch (and rarely paying staff).
This is, unfortunately, a thing that happens a lot. I was first signed a dozen years ago with a small publisher, and my good friend (whose books I inherited recently) was with multiple small publishers years before that, so I’ve seen this many, many times. Publishers closing has been a part of e-publishing for a very long time and many authors at some point find their books orphaned.
The following is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a quick guide for what to do if you find your books orphaned.
What are Reversion of Rights letters?
This is a crucial and necessary document to obtain when your publisher closes.
You had a contract with this publisher, giving them the rights to publish your books. Even though you retain copyright, if you’ve given exclusive print rights to someone, you can’t then go and republish unless you have proof.
If you plan to query other publishers with your orphan books (more below), you absolutely need this letter. If you plan to self-publish, you need it as well; Amazon (KDP and Createspace) will block your books when you self-publish if they find it’s been published before and will require you to give them proof you have the print rights.
A RoR letter will contain language to the effect of “Please consider this the official cancellation of your publication contract” and will include the name of the book, the name of the publisher, and the date. It should also grant the publisher a certain amount of time in which to comply with the cancellation (thirty to ninety days) and remove your book from print.
Ebooks can be removed almost instantaneously, depending on the distribution channel. It basically involves a flip of a button. In the case of distributing through a place like Smashwords, it cane take a few days or up to a week for the new information to “trickle through” to all the sellers. The thirty to ninety days are just there to cover the publisher so they have time to go to all distributors and flip that little button. (There is NO excuse for books to still be for sale anywhere outside of that window.)
Print books are a little trickier. Sometimes sites and stores have stock sitting around, and those copies may continue to be sold, however no new copies should be printed when the book is listed out of print. Should the publisher retain any print stock of the book, they can sell those at a discount but, again, no new copies can be printed. This should be spelled out in your RoR letter.
Stores like Amazon will always list the print book, even when it’s out of print. You shouldn’t still find any ebooks available for sale anywhere (although customers who previously bought copies will still be able to access them).
Keep a copy of your RoR letter. If it comes by email, print it out and keep it with your contracts. This is something you and your heirs will need.
Do I retain rights to my edited manuscript?
Some publishing contracts contain language that give the publisher rights to the edits. The thinking is to protect the publisher from authors pulling their books after editing and publishing themselves. Your RoR letter might also say something like “release of the original manuscript”.
Here’s the thing (and if you’re a publishing contract lawyer or expert, please speak up in the comments with your opinion): I find this a rather tricky thing to enforce. If you, the author, did the edits on the manuscript, that is YOUR work. Unless the publisher or editor was registered as a co-author, that work is yours, end of story.
The other argument I have heard against this is that even if you only have the rights to the original, unedited manuscript, there is nothing to stop you from going back and making the same revisions to the MS again. So I would say, in most circumstances, yes, you probably retain the rights to whatever edits you did on the MS.
Do I retain the rights to my cover art?
Unless you provided the art–either because you hired the artist or were the artist–no, you don’t get the rights to the cover. Depending on the artist contracts, you might be able to re-purchase the cover from them if the design reverts back to them. If the publisher provided the stock photos, even if you’re the artist, you will need to re-purchase that stock so you have a license to use it.
I have the ebook files–can I just upload those for sale?
Absolutely not. The publisher information is right in those files. Start with the doc, strip out publisher info, add your own copyright page, and make your own ebooks.
Will another publisher take my out of print books?
Maybe. Truthfully, it’s going to be a harder sell in most circumstances.
If you want to place orphaned work with another publisher, here’s my advice (as someone who worked in acquisitions):
- First ask a publisher who has other books of yours and see if they’d want your backlist. You probably have a better chance than starting with a new one.
- If approaching a new publisher, be honest about the publishing history of the book. In your query, be clear that the rights have reverted and you have proof of this.
- For the love of god, DO NOT JUST CHANGE THE TITLE AND PRETEND IT’S A NEW BOOK. That is dishonest to the publisher and their customers, and they will find out. Please, please, DO NOT OR I WILL SEND YOU TO BED WITHOUT SUPPER.
- If a series is orphaned, pitch an unpublished book in the series and say in your query that the backlist is available. That is far more enticing offer than just out of print books.
The thing you have to remember is that a publisher still has to invest time and money in publishing a book, and if it’s been for sale for a while, they’re going to wonder if its market has already been tapped. Consider it from the publisher’s position.
I want to self-publish my backlist but I’ve never done it before.
I know how overwhelming it is at first glance, but your backlist is definitely a good way to test out the waters. I’ve got you covered with everything from hiring help to what distributors to consider–find all the posts at this tag.
I promise, you got this. You have so many more options now than ten years ago in digital publishing–your orphaned books don’t have to sit on your harddrive; they can be read again. Take the time to re-read and polish, get a cover, and put the book out yourself if you’re so inclined. Just make sure you’ve got that RoR letter above.
That’s all I can think of at present. Anything else I’m not thinking of, shout in the comments.