FOULED! Part 3: Getting Your Book Back

Predatory Publisher Month at Indies UnlimitedSo you’ve tried to get your publisher to give your book the editing, formatting, and marketing attention it deserves, but you’ve had no luck. Your logical next step may be to try to get your book back.

The technical term is reversion of rights. You’re asking the publisher to give you back any rights you granted it to publish your book. This sometimes becomes necessary even in contracts with a traditional publisher. If the book is not selling well, or some other disagreement has come up, an author may decide to buy back the book and shop it around somewhere else. Although increasingly these days, traditionally-published authors are buying back the rights to their books on their publishers’ backlists and going indie with them.

Trad publishers can be reluctant to agree to a rights reversion, but vanity publishers really don’t like them.

Victoria Strauss with Writer Beware has published a step-by-step process for getting out of a contract with a bad publisher. The first step is to take a good look at your contract.

Of course, that’s an excellent idea even before you sign the thing. David L. Cavanaugh, a partner at the law firm of WilmerHale in Washington, DC, told me that the best way to review a contract is to “think through the bad things that could happen.” Look at what the other side is promising to do for you. Are there any gaps in those promises? Is the publisher promising to do too little for you? Or is the publisher asking for concessions that leave you no recourse in certain circumstances? For example, is the contract for a lengthy term – say, five to seven years – with no provisions for you to request an early termination, and/or with an automatic renewal unless you jump through specific hoops?

Let’s say you’ve lucked out and your contract has a termination clause. Strauss recommends you follow the procedure outlined in the contract. But beware: even if you follow the process to the letter, a scammy publisher may still attempt to charge you a termination fee in an attempt to squeeze another couple of hundred dollars out of you before they let you out the door.

If your contract has no termination clause, then you can try simply asking the publisher to release you. Strauss advises that you keep your request businesslike: “If you take this approach, don’t dwell on the problems you’ve had with the publisher. Try to keep your explanations as neutral as possible – such as saying that you don’t feel you have the time or resources to help promote your book, or pointing to falling sales. If you feel you must mention problems, do so in a factual, businesslike manner, without recriminations or accusations. Especially, don’t mention any negative information you may have found online or heard from other authors. As large a part as this may play in your desire to be free, your request is about you and your book, not other authors and their books.”

If the publisher refuses, or if you can’t afford (or refuse to pay) the termination fee, your best bet is to wait out the term of the contract. Pay special attention to any provisions for automatic renewal at the end of the term, and make sure to request cancellation within the specified window and in the required manner.

Whatever you do, don’t simply declare to your publisher that you’re taking your rights back. At best, the publisher could ignore you and continue to publish your book. At worst, you could be sued. And in any case, if you plan to republish, even as an indie, you will need something in writing from your former publisher that proves your rights have been released back to you.

If you have tried all of this and you’re still getting nowhere, you have a couple of other options short of filing suit. Michael J. Bevilacqua, a partner with WilmerHale in Boston, suggests contacting the consumer affairs division of the attorney general’s office – either in your state or the state where the publisher is located, or both. Sometimes just notifying a scammer that you plan to take this step will convince them to play ball with you.

You could also file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

But what about getting your money back? Strauss says there’s a chance if you act fast: “If you paid by credit card or PayPal, and not too much time has passed, you can try disputing the charges. I know of authors who’ve gotten their money back from Author Solutions this way.”

Failing that, you’ll have to file suit. I’ll talk about that in our final installment next week.

Meanwhile, don’t forget to take the #PublishingFoul survey!

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

8 thoughts on “FOULED! Part 3: Getting Your Book Back”

  1. Good advice! I had previously been published with Harlequin Silhouette. The contract for my book in 2000 was 24 pages long. When I decided I wanted to redo/modernize the story and self publish my book myself, a friend suggested I just simply ask. I read the contract and saw that the waiting period had ended, however, the contract mentioned all kinds of rights that might sound like they were capturing every right in the whole wide world forever and ever. So I called the main number, found out the department to approach about rights reversion and asked them how to proceed. I was told to send an email/and official request via snail mail. I followed to the letter what they suggested. I was told if they decided to publish it as an ebook, I would have to wait another 5 or so years for the next rights reversion opening. I knew the book had a couple “dated” scenarios in it regarding email and cell phone (think 2000) so I was hoping it would date the book and they wouldn’t want to hang onto it. Harlequin apparently does them in batches when they make the decision to revert rights or not. I waited another 3 months after sending off my request, then followed up when I didn’t hear anything with a phone call, this time to the head of the legal department. Someone called me back and left a terse message. The person I had spoken with 3 months before was no longer with them. So I began the process again. About a week later got a phone message that it was in the queue and if they decided to revert rights I should have a decision in about 4 weeks. I called about a month later and they said they were behind, it was in the queue. After almost a year, I received an email, followed up with a letter at some point after that, stating the rights for the book reverted back to me, minus any cover art. I had reedited the book, changed the title back to the one I originally wrote it under, then had new cover art created. Never looked back.

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