Monday, July 13, 2020

When Rights Won’t Revert

When it comes to being traditionally published versus self-published, there are pros and cons to each. One of the issues an author faces with traditional publication (meaning you sign a contract with a publisher, giving them the right to publish your book under certain conditions) is getting your rights back at a later date.

Why would you want your rights back? Now that self-publishing is so easy and indie publishing with smaller houses is expanding because of the ebook market, getting your rights back is the first step enabling you to republish your book and give it a new lease of life. As long as you're under contract with the original publisher, this isn't possible.

You can request the contract be ended, and your rights reverted, when your book is "out of print". The definition of this term will be defined in the contact. In my case, for my sci-fi novel SONG OF SCARABAEUS (first published in 2010 by HarperCollins), it means the publisher has no physical copies left to fulfil an order.

Electronic books can't be out of print, of course. My contract specifies that the ebook is out of print if it sells fewer than 250 copies in 12 months (which is two accounting periods).

Ten years after publication, how is SONG OF SCARABAEUS doing?

The book has sold ~11,500 copies in both formats. Most of that was in the first couple of years. It currently sells fewer than 10 paperbacks and fewer than 100 ebooks a year.

The book is of so little importance to anyone (except me) that the current Amazon listing looks like this:

Yes, the main listing for the book has my name misspelled - a recent occurrence, as it was okay when I checked a few weeks ago.

Clearly ebook sales have fallen below the threshold for rights reversion. The issue is with the paperback. Even if those 10 sales dwindle to zero, the publisher can claim the book is "in print" as they have a box of the books stored in their warehouse. The last time my agent asked on my behalf, we were told there were 85 copies - which at 10 sales per year will take 8+ years to clear.

So, do I have to wait another 8 years to get my rights back, even though pretty much nobody is buying my book and everyone has forgotten about it? According to HarperCollins, yes. They appear to be intractable on this, which is confounding given it surely costs them more to store the books and pay someone to collect sales data and produce a royalty statement twice a year, not to mention take the time to argue back and forth with my agent each time she requests the rights back for me.

(The agent is no longer my agent except for this contract, so she has to deal with the issue twice a year with no possible benefit to herself.)

As long as even one copy remains in the warehouse, the book is in print. The only solution is for me to purchase those 85 copies at the 50% author discount price (85 x $4 = $340) in order to make the book out of print. Shipping from New York to Australia would be astronomical (books are heavy!), but I guess I could ship them to a relative in America who would trash them. (There's no benefit to me to wait for the books to sell retail - I make 64 cents per sale, which is $54.40 total, or $0.00 in reality because the book hasn't earned out its advance.)

Or... the publisher could reduce the carbon footprint of shipping that huge heavy package and simply pulp the books themselves, save the accounting costs, and revert the rights on a book that is probably costing them more money to keep than to give up on. In my agent's words to the publisher: 
"We’ve literally not had any issue getting rights reverted at all of the other big 5 publishers. Only HC and these titles, for some odd reason."
(“These titles” refers to SONG and its sequel CHILDREN OF SCARABAEUS.)

I'm a proponent of both traditional and self-publishing - my advice is to take whatever opportunities appeal to you, and everyone's needs and expectations are different. Most writers don't get an offer to publish traditionally for a multi-thousand-dollar advance, and I'm grateful that I did. But it's important to be aware of what can happen at the tail-end of a contract as well as at the start.

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