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My little box of annoyances, Part II

Last week, oh ye hungry seekers of knowledge, we talked about publishing contracts and the snares that lie therein. If you missed that email, you can catch up with it here. But I left the biggest problem aside so we could get properly stuck into it this week.

The issue is simple: rights reversion.

Let’s say you sign up with Megacorp Publishing Inc. All parties sign in good faith. Megacorp believes in your book. It has every intention of marketing it hard. All good.

But – life happens. Maybe the book cover was poor, or your timing unfortunate, or supermarkets just weren’t buying your book for some other reason. Any case, the book didn’t sell. Megacorp lost money. Your contract isn’t renewed.

And just to be clear: that’s not a one in a hundred outcome. That’s what happens in maybe 6 or 7 cases out of 10. Most works of fiction lose money. Two or three breakeven (but those contracts will be negotiated down or not renewed.) One or two successful books make enough money that the whole merry-go-round continues to spin.

So, OK, your work is one of the unfortunate ones. You spun the wheel and lost. What now?

Well, in the olden, olden days, when books were made out of paper, reversion was standard and easy. A publisher had to keep the book in print. If they didn’t, the author could say, “republish the book or give me the rights.” Publishers generally just reverted the rights, and life went on.

But of course, these days, e-books never die. And print-on-demand means that even paper books never have to die. So the old reversion clauses dropped away and were replaced by ---- nothing. Or if they were replaced, their replacements were so weak as to be meaningless. I’ve seen contracts where publishers insisted on retaining rights to a book so long as annual sales were in excess of 20 units. A book can be essentially dead and still beyond reach of that author.

Why does that matter? Well, you might not care about reversion now, but that doesn’t mean you won’t at some point in the future.

You might want to self-publish commercially. (I reverted some rights from Penguin Random House and was making $100K from the series within a couple of years.) Or you might just care about the book and want to rejacket and relaunch it, without any great expectation of profit. Or you might just want to own the book, because it is yours, and you gave it birth, and you still love it.

For any of these reasons, only some of them commercial, you might want to revert the rights.

Well, lots of you will no doubt be thinking that there’s a fairly obvious and uncontentious solution:

Megacorp now has no meaningful financial interest in your book: if it didn’t sell during the launch window, it’ll never really sell, ever. (Not in the hands of Megacorp, that is: they’re not in the business of trying to revive failed books.) So in a rational world, you’d wait two or three years, then say, “Hey, Megacorp, things didn’t work out. No worries, but can I have the book back? I’m happy to pay something for the small amount of ongoing revenue you’re likely to lose.”

Megacorp would charge you something like 4-5x the income the book had brought in over the last 12 months. (That’s what units of the big publishers charge each other when books move around internally.) You get your book back. Megacorp gets some cash. Everyone’s happy.

But, oh ye hungry seekers of knowledge, we do not live in a rational world.

Actually getting your book back from Megacorp can be insanely hard. Or impossible. Or so expensive as to make no sense at all.

I once tried to revert some rights from HarperCollins. My editors had long since left the firm, so my only point of contact was a nice bloke in Contracts. But he had no authority to make a deal, so he had to talk to his colleagues in the two imprints that held my various books.

But the people in those imprints didn’t know anything about me or the books and they had no incentive to make a deal. If they earned a few grand from selling the rights, no one was going to congratulate them. If it turned out they sold the rights for a few grand, when I had some massive film deal about to be announced, they might even be yelled at.

So even to have the negotiation took months. And the proposed outcome was ludicrous: so expensive and hedged around with qualifications, that I simply gave up. They own some books that earn them no money. I don’t have books that I would love to have. A dumb outcome.

You need to sort these issues out upfront – in the contract ideally.

That’s harder than it sounds. Your agent won’t care, because they have no interest in self-pubbed or non-commercial books. Rights reversion is one of the few areas where your interests diverge sharply from those of your agent.

Megacorp will have some strategy decided at corporate level, that is desperately difficult for you to sway.

And, worst of all, YOU may not care – not in this first flush of excitement, with a publisher offering you actual real money to publish your work.

All I can say, my friends, is that you need to care. You need to surface the issue. You need to push for whatever you can get.

The ideal would be a clause that gave you a defined right to revert the rights after a specified period (probably 5 years) at a specified price (most likely a low multiple of recent sales.)

But publishers are brutal. They won’t give you that. So talk to your editor and your agent and raise the issue. Ask for a good-faith understanding of how reversion will be handled when and if the time comes. You’ll be fobbed off. People will try not to answer. But push. Do your best and get something. When you get that something, pop it into a simple email to your editor. “Hi Aquilegia, thanks for that chat about reversion this morning. As I understand it, we agreed …”

That email will give you a point of leverage if push comes to shove at some point in the future. If you can get something sensible in the contract itself, all the better.

And don’t be embarrassed. The Megacorps of this world have absolutely no rational commercial interest in depriving you of your work. You have every legitimate interest in recovering access to your book if and when Megacorp has no further use for it.

So fight for that access. You’re right, they’re wrong, and everyone knows it.

Oh yeah, and if you want to know what the Very Most Annoying Thing is in my Little Box of Annoyances, then it’s this:

It’s when publishers tell you, “Oh, we can’t negotiate this, because our policy is to have a completely standardised contract.”

They only ever say that when the contract is grossly biased in their favour. Publishers are, as humans, the friendliest, loveliest bunch you can imagine, but don’t be fooled. The contracts are put together by multibillion corporations, whose only interest is their own profit and glory. The resultant contracts stink. They’re not fair. They’re not meant to be fair.

Far too often, and with bigger authors as well as smaller ones, publishers take actions that – to my author-centric mind – represent abuse of power and nothing else. We can’t stop that abuse. We’re just little old us; they’re multibillion dollar corporations. But we can know what we want and what’s fair. Push hard to get it. 

Here endeth the lesson.

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Comments (14)
  • Glad to know I got the right clause in my contract all those years ago (5x buy-back). Not that it would be worth the expense, at least until sales dry up completely.

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    • 5x buyback is perfect! Well done ...

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    • I read an interview with Piers Blofeld in Writing Magazine, talking about eroding author incomes and how the publishers take the Michael. Piers suggested the possibility of a writer's union, a block of people who have greater sway than individuals.

      So, what do you reckon, Harry? Fancy starting a writers' Union?

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      • 😂

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        • it’s a fabblous word!

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          • Dear Harry,

            In the minced words of Admiral Farragut "Damn the Publishers!"

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          • Gosh, I am appalled to read that. Fancy having your book not selling and unreachable. Thanks for drawing attention to it Harry and sorry to hear you have suffered from it. Yes Lynn, sign me up!

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            • Tis very common, alas!

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            • Thanks for this and last week's advice Harry. I'd heard of this before and this article makes it all clear.

              Any plans for Jericho Writers to start publishing?

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              • Fiction publishing? No plans. It's a whole different game that one, and not one we're going to be rushing into ...

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