Book publishing has changed dramatically over the last twenty years and if you are a long time author with published work and contracts you need to inventory all your agreements and do some serious thinking about your backlist.
New opportunities have emerged and you can take advantage of them.
Let me sketch the big picture, which has two foundation blocks. Copyright in most cases is the life of the author plus 70 years, so your copyrights are in force. This is your property, only you have the right to exploit it.
The second foundation is that books can be reverted from their original publishers and inexpensively re-published as ebooks. These books do have financial potential and as they are distributed and promoted over the internet there is a ready, permanent market that can be accessed at very low costs.
For all your books that are in print with a traditional print publisher you need to know how the books are doing, what subsidiary rights have been licensed and what rights your publisher retains control of. Auto-pilot is not a good strategy, you should know how your books are doing and be ready to see if your publisher can support them. For backlist books that can be reverted to you or have been reverted, you need to consider their potential as ebooks, print on demand editions and other opportunities that exist now or may emerge.
Here is a checklist to guide you:
My print books with a traditional publisher:
- Are my books in print?
- What formats are in print–hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, ebook, audiobook?
- Are my books in print in all the right formats?
- Are my books ever marketed or promoted?
- Am I receiving royalty statements? Am I making any money?
- Can any of my books be helped by a new cover or price change?
- What subsidiary rights has my publisher sold? What is the status of those licenses/editions? Are they making any money? If they are translation or audio licenses have I seen the royalty statements?
In our experience at my literary agency we have seen substantial revenue generated by ebooks and audiobooks, two formats that your older, backlist books may not be in yet. A trade paper edition can be a great adjunct to a book that is mainly selling in hardcover. In the ebook world price drops and price promotions are common, something unheard of for the most part before the advent of the ebook. The landscape has changed dramatically and these new revenue sources have emerged.
In my experience, most traditional print publishers are very professional and possess a store of good will towards their published authors. If you pursue these issues contact them with clear and authoritative information. Give them time to respond. Backlist books aren’t always a priority for traditional publishers and exploiting them fully can require time, effort and expense. View them as your partners. If books are out of print and/or your publisher is willing to revert rights to you, revert those rights and make plans to pursue a second life for them. Be patient but be persistent and have sound suggestions for how to help your back list grow. If your publisher is unresponsive insist on a rights reversion so you can support the books yourself.
Let me add some thoughts on literary agents who may be a party to these agreements. If the agent or agency is still active and performing services for you all this work can be performed by them or by them in concert with you. Work with your agent but don’t feel that your agency agreement precludes you from pitching in and being an active author. If the agency is inactive or you are no longer in touch with them this can be a burden, but their status in the contracts does not preclude you from pursuing all these issues on your own. Different publishers may feel differently and there may be some protocols to work out but ultimately it is you who signed that agreement, you who granted those rights and you who the publisher is beholden to. Be a diplomat and work to sustain your career, protect your books and earn the income that you deserve.
Books whose right I control – My backlist
I imagine for many authors thinking about the future of books that they control may be a daunting prospect. It can be. There’s a sea of information out there, but how do you navigate it? How do you make good choices? Do you have the energy, focus, drive and financial resources to pursue bringing these books back into print and managing their future?
I want to encourage you to do so. Here is the case I would make.
There is money to be made. You may be pleasantly surprised. The cost of creating an ebook paired with a print on demand edition is relatively small and you can find worldwide distribution for it on terms that are attractive on a per book basis. There will be a learning curve where you figure out how to get a new edition of your book created but the information and resources are freely available on the internet. When your book is in print again in whatever editions you can manage you will have a financial opportunity in place that will last literally decades.
In addition to the financial potential, there is the legacy that you will want to establish for your lives work. Beyond the library or the used book store, you can see all your work available for sale, under your control, indefinitely. You can even update, revise and repackage the your backlist book if you care to. You have every reason to make the effort to see that your work continues to educate and entertain.
Beyond self publishing your book in a traditional print format there may be other opportunities. It’s possible that another publisher will be interested in your work and you can license that work to them, re-launching your work with a new print partner. There are also opportunities in audiobooks, in translation and even in film and television in very rare circumstances. The book world continues to evolve rapidly. Authors should stay current and continue to educate themselves about the opportunities that exist now and that will emerge in the future.
It’s your work, you own it and it has potential that you can exploit. The digital revolution has been most consequential for authors and books. Books that used to cost thousands of dollars to reprint, warehouse and distribute can now be re-published inexpensively, a mouse click away for millions of customers worldwide. Don’t miss out. At a minimum, inventory your work. Look at your backlist. With that in hand, you can plan for the future secure in knowing ‘where your children are’.