Monday, May 2, 2011

Self-Publishing Your Backlist

Today, I’m not going to post my usual Debut Author ‘IT’ Factor post. Instead, I’m going to talk about something valuable I learned at the writer’s retreat I attended this weekend. It doesn’t affect me (yet), but it could impact a lot of published authors out there who are looking to jump on the self-publishing bandwagon with their out-of-print books.

While there, I attended a workshop on Digital Publishing led by the very savvy Angela James, Executive editor of Carina Press. A multi-published author in the audience who is in the process of getting the rights back to her out-of-print books asked about self-publishing her backlist. Now, I’m sure we all know authors who are doing this and why not? All of the hard work is done. The manuscript is written and it’s been professionally edited and revised. It’s just sitting there gathering dust and all they have to do is format it for Kindle and Smashwords, upload the file, and voila, it’s available as an e-book to a whole new audience of readers and fans who are ravenous for an author’s backlist. Plus they’re now getting a whopping 70% on each sale. Sounds great, right?

“Not so fast,” said Ms. James (and I’m paraphrasing here). Guess what? Depending on what’s in your publishing contract, chances are you may not own the rights to the finished book. Say what?! You heard me right. It is entirely possible that when the rights to a book revert back to you, you only get the rights back to your “original” work -- that typo-filled, unedited, unrevised, hurry-and-get-it-in-before-the-deadline version. Unless your contract says differently, you may not have the rights to the “edited” work. Any edits and revisions made after you turned in that manuscript belong to the publisher.

There was a collective gasp in the audience. I guarantee to a person none of us had ever thought about this possiblity.

Now I’m sure most authors know that they don’t own the rights to the cover art. That’s why authors’ self-published backlists on Amazon and Smashwords often have a generic cover with stock art. It’s because they aren’t allowed to use the snazzy cover the art department came up with for their printed books – they don’t own the rights to it. Note: If you are an author using your old cover art on your self-published books, you better fix that fast! Another little tidbit mentioned is that you don’t own the pretty formatting your book was printed in. That’s right. You need to change the layout and typeface of the entire book before you upload anything. You also don’t own any of the cover copy. I’m assuming this means the back cover blurb, but don’t hold me to this. Everyone in the audience was still too stunned about the not owning the edited version part to ask to have this clarified.

So what does this mean? Is an author’s publisher going to hunt them down and sue them over this or demand compension for every copy sold? Probably not, especially if the edits were minor. But they could and it’s probably only a matter of time before they do it to somebody. After all, they paid the editor and everyone else who had a hand in taking your novel from original paper manuscript to finished print book and they’re not going to give all that hard work away for free.

So what’s an author to do? First, check the fine print in the reversion of rights clause of your contract. Ask your agent or a literary attorney to look into it if you’re not sure. Because digital publishing was a thing of the future when contracts were written 5, 10 or more years ago, this thought probably never crossed the legal department’s minds and may not be addressed at all. However, chances are contracts signed within the past few years will have clauses regarding this. So what happens if your contract says you don’t have rights to the edited version? It may be possible to buy it from the publisher. Don’t ask me if they’ll agree to do this or how much it will cost. This type of thing is going to vary from publisher to publisher.

Now I'm not an expert on publishing contracts (and I don't play one on TV) and this was the first time I'd ever heard about this issue. It just goes to show that in this age of ever changing publishing technology, each of us needs to be knowledgeable of how this industry is evolving and how it might affect us -- if not now, then later on in our careers.


  1. Interesting. You've given me something to think about. Thanks.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Fascinating post, Lori! This is an area I'm sure will evolve as time goes on. Thanks for posting this.


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