“Do not assume a publisher has an interest in your book selling well. They should, but they don’t. Their interest is in seeing which books unexpectedly hit. That’s it. If it’s not you, you’re screwed.” Thus Carolyn Jewel: Writer’s Diary telling of her difficulties in getting rights reverted from a failing publishing house. This does sound achingly familiar: we publishers make life and death decisions about hundreds and thousands of books as if they were SKUs, not the result of years of work on the part of a sensitive individual. But of course it can’t really be any different. If it were we’d all be self-publishers, which may be the best way to go if you haven’t got a potential blockbuster. Big publishers just have too many books in their catalog to lavish individual attention on all of them; plus we know from bitter experience that most of the books will “fail” — where success is measured by the achievement of large sales. But publishers are by nature optimists, or they wouldn’t be in this business, so they are always reluctant to give up the right to try again — even if they never get around to doing so in the case of your book. In the old days when we didn’t have POD and e-books, reversion could occur when the book went out of print. But that stage is now never reached, so if you haven’t got some clause in your contract specifying some level of sales, some date beyond which, or some mechanism for the right to publish to revert to you, then it won’t. Ever. If the publisher goes out of business, look out. Your book is an asset of the company and has to be made part of the bankruptcy proceedings.

The problem of getting your rights back from a failing publisher was being ventilated last year because of the problems at Ellora’s Cave. This post from Vulture explores the possibility that it was Amazon that dun’ ’em in. (The picture alone is worth the click-through.) It would seem that their bankruptcy scare is now less pressing: maybe they are finding they can compete with Amazon after all. Ellora’s Cave is still trading, and had a large impressive booth at this year’s BEA. But apparently rights reversions to the author within 12 months prior to a company’s going into bankruptcy can be regarded as fraudulent, so authors have an unexpectedly large investment in the health of their publisher.

Clearly the right course of action is to refuse any clause that restricts your right to a reversion of rights and insist on one which specifies in some detail the conditions under which that will take place, right by right, but that doesn’t help much in the real world where authors’ negotiating power is so much less than the publishers’. The site Writer Beware® gives solid advice on how to request a reversion. The Authors Guild is agitating about a whole raft of contract issues, and rights reversion is one of them. This all makes sense of course . . . but this is a lopsided negotiation, so good luck to any but the most powerful bestselling authors. Here’s a link to the Authors Guild announcement of their Fair Contract Initiative.