This post, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, originally appeared on her The Business Rusch blog.
Over the last couple of years, a number of writers have written to me to ask how to get the rights to their traditionally published novels reverted back to them. These requests increased while I wrote the most recent short series, “Why Writers Disappear,” and finally, one of the readers mentioned via e-mail that I should do a blog post on getting rights reverted.
It’s a good idea, so I’m taking it.
When a writer signs a contract with a publisher to have a book published, that contract includes which rights the publisher is licensing and at what cost/percentage of that cost. All of this is based on the copyright, which can be sliced down to minute fractions, and each fraction licensed.
For example, a writer might license worldwide rights to publish the book as a hardcover novel in the English language. The other rights, from e-book to audio to mass market paperback, would not be included in that particular contract.
Some contracts are short, some are ten and twenty pages long. Each contract will delineate what the rights licensed are, what the publisher will pay the writer for the use of those rights, and when the contract expires. All contracts need an end date to be legal, and so you’d think that book contract would have a set time period. It’s pretty convenient: both parties know the contract expires on a specific date. The contract can be renegotiated around the time of expiration or renewed on a yearly basis, until one party decides to cancel the contract, or, or, or…
Before we go any further, I want to make something very, very, very clear. Often, writers in the comments section of this blog ask a question about contracts that assumes that all book contracts are the same. Some writers might understand that contracts differ, but those writers then believe that all bestsellers have the same contract, and all midlist writers have a different one.
Here’s the truth of it, folks. You—one writer—can have twelve book contracts with the same company, and each contract might have different terms from other contracts. In other words, you might have spent your entire publishing career with one publishing house. You might write the same type of book year after year, and you still might have twelve different contracts, with twelve different terms, including twelve different reversion clauses.
I know that’s hard to wrap your minds around, but it’s an important thought, because if you believe that all contracts are the same, you’ll end up signing something that’s bad for you. After all, Famous Writer (who publishes with the same publisher) signed that contract, right?
No, not right. Famous Writer is different from Famous Writer Two. One is a great negotiator who hires an IP attorney. The other is a terrible negotiator with an even worse agent. The great negotiator with the IP attorney might have a better contract. But he might not. Because the terrible negotiator might be too famous to piss off, and the publisher automatically offered terrible negotiator better terms than great negotiator.
You don’t know, and can’t know, and probably never will know.
So you must make decisions based on your own career.