Thoughts on Getting Rights Back

A hand signs a document (written in Latin) and the post title, "Thoughts on Getting Rights Back" is superimposed on the top.

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

Many times in the past five years, I’ve heard from traditionally-published writers who want to get the rights back to their characters and story worlds for their backlist books.

I’ve also heard from writers who’ve had a hard time getting a rights reversion granted by their publishers.

Some writers weren’t exactly sure what they wanted to do with their rights. They only knew that they’d been told that they should try to have them reverted.

Yes.  If you’ve been traditionally published and your series has been dropped by your publisher, you should try to get your rights back.

Things you can do with your book when you have rights back:

Publish prequels or sequels to books. Publish spin-offs where supporting characters now have their own stories.

Put your books up for audition on ACX for audio.

Have your books translated into other languages on Bablecube or similar sites.

Expand into hardcover for the library or collectors’ market. Expand into digital if your books are older.  Have your books available in paperback again.

Make your books available overseas in English by using aggregator sites like Draft2Digital, Smashwords, PublishDrive, or StreetLib.

The process is fairly simple, at least at first:

Review your contract. What rights did you sign over to your publisher?

If you need help understanding your contract, there’s a nifty  PDF that’s available from Authors Alliance (and Berkeley Law).  You can download it for free, although they do ask for a donation of $20 (which is not required, however, only suggested).

Some pertinent chapters:

Are You Eligible to Revert Rights Under the Terms of Your Contract? 40
Does Your Contract Have a Reversion Clause? 42
What Conditions Must Be Met Before You Can Exercise Your Reversion Clause? 45
Have the Conditions of Your Reversion Clause Been Met? 49

Write to your publisher:

My email, asking for my audiobook rights for my Southern Quilting mysteries, looked like this:

Dear Subrights Department,
I’m writing to request a reversion of unexploited audiobook rights for the Southern Quilting Mysteries (cozy mysteries formerly with Obsidian). These include Quilt or Innocence (2012)Knot What it Seams (2013)Quilt Trip(2013)Shear Trouble (2014), and Tying the Knot (2015).
The original contract was signed Feb. 10, 2011.
Please send written confirmation of reversion of the audiobook rights to me at this email address or at my home address of ________. I can be contacted by phone at _______ to answer any questions.
In my email, I was specific as to the rights I wanted reverted, and I named each publication. I was polite.  I gave them a date in case they needed extra help locating the contract. It would have been better if I’d had a name to work with, but unfortunately the switchboard at Penguin Random House appeared to be overwhelmed when I called in, so an email address was the best I could get.
What happens if you run into issues?  If your contract doesn’t address reversion rights or if your publisher balks at reverting them?  Writer and publishing attorney Susan Spann (no relation to me) in her Jan. 2016 post for Writer Unboxed (Obtaining Reversions of Publishing Rights: the Good, the Bad, & the Ugly) suggests that we contact a publishing attorney. Additionally, she states (all emphasis hers):

” Consult a Publishing Attorney. If the contract doesn’t grant you obvious termination rights and the publisher refuses a polite request for termination and reversion, there may still be creative ways to obtain termination of the contract and reversion of publishing rights.

However, in most cases the author’s right to terminate a contract and obtain a reversion of publishing rights is limited by the language in the agreement. If the contract doesn’t grant you termination rights, and publisher isn’t in breach, your options may well boil down to persuading the publisher to agree to termination—or waiting until the contract allows you to terminate without the publisher’s consent.”

I’ve also been asked if it’s been hard to not have the digital rights for my first book in my Myrtle Clover series (Midnight Ink holds the ebook rights).  In some ways, yes. But because my books are written as stand-alones with no real story arc between books, it’s been easier. I don’t have the first book included in my first box set, but readers have never complained about that.

Other writers might get around this issue by creating a prequel trilogy and have a box set of those.  Or have a novella prequel that could work as a permafree introduction to the series.

At any rate–why not see what you can get?  With any luck, it will only be a matter of pulling out your contract and writing an email.

Have you asked for a rights reversion?  Have you got a series that’s partially trad-pubbed and partially self-pubbed? How has that worked for you?

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12 thoughts on “Thoughts on Getting Rights Back

  1. Hi Elizabeth – a thorough post for those authors who might need help in this direction … being thorough with as much information as possible – is, I’m sure, going to get you nearer the top of the pile for a reply. Cheers Hilary

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Elizabeth. Not too long ago, I got my rights back for one of my books, and I couldn’t be happier about my decision. It’s got a new lease on life, and we’ll see where it all goes from here.

  3. If the company has gone out of business, the author should definitely get his or her rights back. Sometimes the publisher will say no, especially if the company is “on hold” rather than out of business. One of my authors has been unable to get the rights back to her print book, but since the book was never produced in eBook form, she did get that right back.

  4. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective, Elizabeth! The only contract I’ve ever signed has been with my literary agent for book #1, and then I went with their epublishing service later down the line when none of the trad publishers nibbled (historical cozies…very tight market). I’m sure I could get my rights back because I never signed an additional contract for the epublishing aspect – just for the representation – but for now I’m fine with them taking the 15% commission, they worked really hard for it.

  5. My publisher went out of business three years ago, and no attempt (even a lawyer) to contact them for my rights has helped. However, they have broken nearly every termination clause in the contract and the contract itself expires next year. In the meantime, I have continued to write the rest of the series and am planning a major release of the whole series (including a newly edited book 1) next fall. Patience is a virtue :)

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