I toddled to my email computer the Friday night before Thanksgiving, expecting nothing, really. It seemed like everyone I knew was going to take the entire week for vacation, and I had nothing percolating overseas.
Instead, I found a series of letters from my agent. Yes, I still kinda sorta have an agent. He’s a good man, who still handles some of the traditional projects that I sold years and years ago. He knows I won’t be hiring him for current or future projects, but he does an excellent job on the old stuff.
Attached to the email was a reversion letter for my first three Diving novels.
Good thing I have my email computer on a standing desk, because I would have fallen out of my chair. As it was, I stumbled back, frowned, and then hooted with surprise.
I had expected a prolonged war to get those books reverted. I had sold those novels in 2007, which feels like a century ago. At that point, the indie revolution hadn’t happened. But as it did, I knew I had options. At first, I thought I’d be completely hybrid—some books with traditional publishers, and others self-published. As time went on, though, I realized I was much better off indie—and that was before the contracts from traditional publishers became draconian.
This particular publisher had always had trouble with honoring the terms of the contract. Their company policy seemed to be that it was easier to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission. My agent and I were constantly writing them letters. Getting royalty statements from them was particularly difficult. Getting accurate royalty statements was even harder.
I had only licensed U.S. and U.K. rights to the company, but they had published the ebook worldwide. I stopped that almost immediately—and I wrote that letter. If a truly nasty letter was required, I did it, rather than my agent. As I said, he’s a good man, and he still needs traditional publishing contacts. I do not.
So fastforward to the end of October of this year. I had received the six-month royalty statements from all of my traditionally published books except these. As usual. I had remained silent about failing to receive the statements in October of 2015, and then again, the statements due for spring of 2016. I was biding my time.
I wrote an email to my agent when I realized that, yet again, this company had not sent any royalty statements. I told him that I did not want this company to cure (meaning send me royalty statements and payments owed). What I wanted was a complete reversion of the contract.
I also told him I figured this would be a fight, and I only wanted him on the first round of that fight. I didn’t want to hire a lawyer to handle this, and then have the company circumvent the lawyer by going to the agent.
My agent said he understood. He wrote a great letter, and copied me on it. And then, nothing.
I figured I’d be hiring that lawyer right about now.
Instead, the company reverted the rights and ended the contract. You see, they were in serious, serious breach of that contract by not sending royalty statements for 18 months. In my agent’s letter was an implied threat: we would activate the accounting clause if they didn’t respond quickly.
They did respond quickly, reverting everything. I asked my agent to send one more letter, notifying them that they needed to pull down the ebook editions within ten days. He did, and added a reminder that they owed us money.
I figured we wouldn’t see the money and there’d be a fight to get the ebooks down. Or rather, there wouldn’t be a fight, per se. I’d be sending breach of copyright notices to the various retailers (like Amazon) along with my newly minted reversion letter.
But nope. As of Monday, November 29, the ebooks came down off the big retailers (it’ll take a while for the news to filter through some of the smaller ones), and all that remains of the first editions of those books are the back stock of the paper editions that company informed us it had.
I can’t tell you how shockingly easy this was, and how unexpected. I’ve been wrangling off and on with Simon & Schuster over Fantasy Life with its stupid $15.99 ebook for years now. I have another traditional publisher that I’m going to be pulling books out of within the next year or so. All of these efforts will require a lawyer. (None of the books have the same agent on them.) I’ve been bracing myself for the legal battle on the Diving books all year.
I wasn’t just making up how hard this would be. I’ve been helping other writers get their rights reverted for years now. Each case is different. A few have been easy, particularly one Big Three (Four? Five? Two? Who knows) traditional publisher, which desperately wants out of the genre market (proving, I think, just how stupid its current executives are).
Other reversions have been very hard. It doesn’t seem to matter if the writer is a midlist writer or a bestseller. The only difference I can see is that the bestsellers often get charged an arm and a ball to get their rights back. Some of these bestsellers can afford the payment; others cannot. And some of the midlisters have been charged as well, often as much as the original advance times two. In one case, that came to nearly $100,000 to get the rights reverted.
Of course, the writer, who did not have that kind of money, backed down.
Other writers have negotiated and threatened lawsuits. Some threatened to activate the accounting clause in the contract, which really does seem to get books freed much quicker. But there has to be a good reason (like 18 months of no royalty statements) to make that threat super effective.
One writer, who just got her rights back after a nearly year-long saga involving agents, attorneys, and fees, wrote to me the same week I got my Diving books back. This writer was ecstatic. She wrote that it felt like she had just bought her books out of slavery. She’s already got her editions in production. And, even better for me as a fan of her work, she’s returned to the series, now that she can publish it herself.
That’s the heartbreaking part of this new world. Many long-time writers, who want to go full indie, are abandoning their series rather than put money into their traditional publishers’ pocket. The first time I heard a writer say he was going to do that, I was shocked.
I understood the sentiment: As I prepared to publish the first new Diving book in three years, I had a serious (if silent) discussion with myself about whether or not I wanted to do it. I felt that I had the traditional publisher over a barrel, and if they saw an increase in sales, then they would want to keep the books.
Then I decided that I didn’t care about the traditional publisher. That was a different fight; what mattered were two things.
First, I wanted to continue this series. At some point, I figured, I would buy back the rights, just like a lot of other authors have done. I could afford to do it now, if need be, and I would if I had to.
Second, though, and just as important to me, were the readers. This series has a strong reader base, and those readers don’t care who publishes the books as long as the books are available. Even if the rights never reverted, I would eventually overwhelm the traditional publisher’s books with many more titles in the series. I wouldn’t make all of the money off the series, but I would make most of it.
The timing worked out for me, however. The Falls, the most recent book, appeared at the end of October. Because of the way that traditional publishing works, the traditional publisher wouldn’t even know there was a bump in sales until sometime next year.
They reverted what they thought were dying rights, not realizing that a flurry of activity (from me) was about to revive the project in a very big way. They gave up the books, and I can’t be happier.
What does that mean for me? It means that finally, we can do the kinds of promotions on the Diving series I’ve always wanted to do. We can bundle the volumes. We can occasionally lower the price of the first book. We can actually advertise the first book in the series.
Granted, we’ve been doing some of that overseas already, but not within the U.S. and the U.K., where the bulk of the market for the books is. Now, we can make a plan for 2017 involving these books, The Falls, and the next book, which will appear in the fall of 2017. (It will also be in Asimov’s in the spring of 2017—great promotion!)
Even without the increased publicity, I’m benefitting and so are the readers. Our ebooks sell for $5.99, of which I get about $4. The traditionally published ebooks sold for $9.99, and who knows what I got from those. In theory, 25% of net, whatever that was. Let’s be charitable and say that I got the full retail price. That’s $2.50. Then subtract the agent’s 15% and on a good day, I’d get about $2 per ebook sale, half of what I will get now at the lower price.
Ebooks sell fewer copies at $9.99 than they do at $5.99, so the readership will increase as more people will buy these books. And that doesn’t count any discounting we might do to entice them into the active series.
None of this would matter one whit if I had given up on the series. The previous book Skirmishes came out in 2013, even though the first three books in the series were still held by the traditional publisher. That pleased readers, and the release of the book pleased me.
What’s different this time is that my hands are no longer tied. By the time the sixth full novel in the series appears, I’ll be able to do the kinds of promotion and reader interaction that I want to do, worldwide.
Those writers who abandon their series just because a traditional publisher controls the first few books are doing themselves and their readers a disservice. If the writer would continue the series anyway, then the writer should keep writing the series, even if a different publisher holds the rights to certain territories.
Some writers aren’t continuing their series because they don’t enjoy writing it. Others aren’t continuing because they got so discouraged dealing with their traditional publishers that working on the series brings up all that anger and frustration.
Believe me, I get it. I don’t think a writer should continue her series in that situation. I think she should write it off until the day when the series leaps back into her mind, ready to go. (If it ever does.)
Otherwise, failing to continue a series the writer loves because someone else holds the rights to some of the books harms the writer and the readers. And it gives traditional publishers too much power.
There are ways to get rights back. I discussed those ways in Closing The Deal…On Your Terms (which you can get at a discount in a bundle right now—ain’t this new world great?). You can also read the original blog post without the changes I made as I put the book together here.
I realize that some of you are glaring at the screen right now, thinking I’m twelve kinds of hypocrite. Because I haven’t gone back to the Fey series yet. I keep promising to do so, and I haven’t, even though I hold all the rights to those books.
Why haven’t I? Well, I had to abandon that series over fifteen years ago because my traditional publisher screwed up everything, from the cover of the first book to taking the fourth book out of print while leaving one, two, three, and five in print. In 2000, there was no indie publishing, no way to save this series. No other publisher wanted to mess with it, even though they wanted a new series from me.
So I had to set the books aside, which meant setting them aside mentally as well.
I’m slowly easing them into my subconscious again. They’re coming up over and over again, as my brain contemplates where to start The Place of Power series. It’s going to happen. The question is when—and at the moment, I don’t have the answer.
Right now, I’m going to finish the handful of Diving projects that I have, not because the rights reverted, but because I’m still in the middle of one long story. I originally thought The Falls was a novella that I was writing to explain an aspect of the universe to myself. The Falls became one of the longest novels in the series. (Sigh)
The next novel, The Runabout, was supposed to be the opening section of the only novel I was going to write, but it clocked in much too long. I would have had a 210,000-300,000 word novel if that was the opening section. So now I have to write the next few pieces of that long story.
This new world of publishing has given my subconscious permission to tell stories the way it wants to, and sometimes that’s really long.
I am having fun, though. And I’m more than thrilled to have my rights back on the first three Diving books. You’ll see all kinds of experimentation with promotion and bundling and other things with those books—things I hadn’t been able to do until now.
My writer friend is right: it is liberating to have those books back. Yes, I feel like I released the books from some kind of limbo, but mostly I feel free. I feel like I can do what I want when I want with my work.
And that’s a gift in and of itself.
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“Business Musings: Diving To Freedom,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.