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Bringing Books Back, Part 2: When Authors Want to Republish

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February 2014

by Linda Carlson

Authors Acquiring Rights

As you know from Part 1 of this series (January), some IBPA members have created perennial bestsellers from titles that had languished with their original publishers, having met the challenges of acquiring rights from companies that are still active, acquiring rights held by companies that closed long ago, and acquiring rights from companies that had merged with other companies.

Rights challenges also confront authors who want to republish books of their own that are no longer being sold and that they believe can still attract readers.

Of course, digital printing and e-publishing options make it relatively easy to become your own publisher in terms of production and digital distribution, but there can be lots to learn about  reacquiring the rights.

Sometimes the process is easy. “After self-publishing Drive Me Wild: A Western Odyssey, I inquired whether my earlier book Living on the Spine: A Woman’s Life in the Sangre de Cristos was going to be released as an e-book by its publisher,” says Christina Nealson of WildWords Press in Prescott, AZ. “When the company decided ‘no,’ it offered me the rights back to both that book and New Mexico’s Sanctuaries, Retreats and Sacred Places. Done through an email, quickly and easily.”

Sometimes, though, getting the rights back can be exhausting and exasperating. “Desperately dysfunctional” is how Donald Yates of the Phoenix-based Panther’s Lodge Publishers describes his attempts to get the rights for digital and audio versions of a title published in 2012. The publisher doesn’t “seem to know whether I am approaching them as the author or an independent publisher,” says Yates, who has serious concerns about these communications.

“In response to my most recent email about an audiobook, I received a message about how nice it was that you could choose to automatically have an e-book read to you from your e-book reader!”

Charlotte Boyett Compo, the Grinnell, IA, author of more than 70 fantasy novels, isn’t having the same struggle as Yates, but she’s frustrated by one of her publishers, which is “holding a book hostage for the full seven years” before her contract allows her to request a reversion of rights. “That book sells maybe one or two copies a month,” she notes, but the contract is preventing her from selling the material to another publisher or issuing it herself.

Bear in mind, too, that  reacquiring rights may cost you. “I’ve known writers who have been asked for $2,500 to buy their rights back from midlist publishers,” Nealson says. Other members report being charged as much as $1,000 in addition for the book files, whether physical or digital.

Legal Hurdles

The  reacquisition process may mean you get to know attorneys better than you expected to. Arline Curtiss, at Oldcastle Publishing in San Diego, sold her Depression Is a Choice to a major house in 2001, when contracts tended not to mention either e-books or print on demand. After the publisher notified her that the book was not going to be reprinted, she bought the remaining 500 copies to sell herself. Then she discovered the publisher was still selling the book in POD format on Amazon.

With the assistance of IBPA member and general counsel Jonathan Kirsch, she got all rights to the title returned to her, and she got paid for the POD copies sold on Amazon. “My advice: if your requests are ignored, hire a lawyer. Big publishers only listen to big people.”

Something else helped in Curtiss’s case: her “meticulous records” of all correspondence with her publisher, including the correspondence relating to rights for digital editions, which Curtiss had refused to grant.

The best time for authors to avoid difficulties in  reacquiring rights is long before publication, when a contract is issued.

“My Transcendence of Loss Over the Life Span was first published in 1989 by a company that subsequently sold it to several other presses in succession. When the book didn’t appear on the current publisher’s Website, I wrote asking for a reversion of rights and discovered that the copyright was in the original publisher’s name, not mine. This is a common practice with professional books, but I warn against it,” says Patricia Weenolsen of Seattle’s Rubythroat Press, L.L.C.

In addition to making sure they own the copyrights in their work, authors should check to see that their contracts cover acquisition of their books’ files. Deb Vanasse of Running Fox Books in Eagle River, AK, offers that advice, noting that she easily got the rights, the files, and the plates for her books A Distant Enemy and Out of the Wilderness from one publisher, but was expected to buy the files for her Amazing Alaska from another one.

Another recommendation: Retain as many rights as you can, says Elaina Zuker of Elaina Zuker Associates in Delray Beach, FL. She was successful in deleting all references to related merchandise and nonbook products in her 1992 contract with a major house for Seven Secrets of Influence. As a result, she was immediately able to contract with Day-Timer for a cassette audio program called “7 Secrets of Influence.” And when her publisher dropped her book and the rights reverted, she bought the remainders to sell herself and then contracted with Crisp Publishing. “With ‘outtakes’ from the original book, I created two books which are still in print with Crisp’s new owner, Azco.”

Zuker’s sales of material generated as part of the original book didn’t stop there. A few years ago, after contacting several large foreign publishers exhibiting at the Frankfurt Book Fair, she was able to sell rights to her first manuscript to Penguin India. And last year, she got that same English manuscript converted to an e-book, which she published.

An additional option to consider when rights revert is revising the book and selling it back to its original publisher. That’s what Troy, NY, novelist Ryk Spoor did with one of his titles. “The publisher handed me back my rights per the contract clause, and now, some years later, they’ve bought the new, vastly improved and expanded edition of that same book!”

A final word of advice from a member regarding authors’ rights: Watch your royalty statements and the publisher’s catalog and Website so that you’ll know if your book goes out of print. There’s no guarantee that the publisher will notify you. As Kitty Morse of La Cavavane Publishing in Vista, CA, relates: “I found out that A Biblical Feast: Foods from the Holy Land was out of print only after I contacted the San Diego Museum of Natural History about carrying the book during its exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The museum was interested, but I discovered there were no books to sell.”

For Part 1 of Bringing Back Books: https://articles.ibpa-online.org/article/bringing-books-back-part-1

Linda Carlson writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she has reacquired the rights to her Publicity and Promotion Handbook: A Complete Guide for Small Business.

Old Titles, Startup Strength

Republishing can be a terrific way to create critical mass immediately, whether you’ve reacquired rights to your own work and then republished it, or you’ve acquired rights to out-of-print or inactive titles by others so you can use them to launch your own new small press.

As Dale Carlson recalls, “When I started Bick Publishing House (now in Branford, CT), I had my agent acquire the rights to some 40 of my out-of-print Young Adult titles that had been published by New York publishers. These had built-in recognition by library buyers, retailers, wholesalers, and reviewers, so they got Bick off to a good start.”

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