Pagan Authors and Reversion Rights

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 16, 2011 — 27 Comments

The publishing industry is in flux right now. The Borders chain has closed down, Amazon is continuing to expand from mere retailer to high-profile publisher, smaller booksellers continue to struggle, and access to ebooks is increasingly becoming something large book retailers and publishers will fight over. In this climate of uncertainty it is more important than ever for authors to have control over their intellectual property, or trust the ones who do. As digital rights become more than a mere afterthought bigger publishers are trying to force increasingly draconian contracts on writers desperate to break through. In some cases publishers are outright refusing reasonable requests for the reversion of rights on out-of-print books.

“After three weeks of silence and unreturned phone calls, [SFWA] GriefCom sent a different kind of request, giving Red Deer forty-eight hours to either revert the book or provide proof that it was being sold via regular trade channels, and asserting that after that, I would be forced to take additional steps. Early the next day, I heard from the GriefCom chair that he had received a phone call, and that the unidentified caller took him to task in no uncertain terms–claiming harassment, declaring there would be no reversion on the title, and warning that she would “report” us to [prominent Canadian SF writer #1] and [prominent Canadian SF writer #2]—all before hanging up on him.”

The above quote is from fantasy/romance author Doranna Durgin, who finally had to go public to try and shame her publisher into honoring the very clear reversion of rights clause in her contract. Why is Fitzhenry & Whiteside being so obstinate? Because as the ebook market continues to grow, publishers know they are now sitting on potential goldmines of out-of-print, but technically not-out-of-contract “backlisted” material. The last thing they want is their “midlist” authors defecting en-masse and selling directly to their now-established audience of fans (like Stephen “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” Covey has done). Indeed, a number of digital middlemen have emerged to cater to authors who want to have more control (and money).

“Arthur Klebanoff, chief executive of RosettaBooks, said that Mr. Covey would receive more than half of the net proceeds that RosettaBooks took in from Amazon on these e-book sales. In contrast, the standard digital royalty from mainstream publishers is 25 percent of net proceeds. […] His move comes as publishers ratchet up their efforts to secure the digital rights to so-called backlist titles — books published many years, if not decades, ago. These books can be vitally important to publishing houses because they are reprinted year after year and provide a stream of guaranteed revenue without much extra marketing effort.”

This phenomenon has already hit the esoteric/occult/Pagan sphere with the launch of the LVX/NOX and Sunna Press e-publishing imprints.

“Their first release is “The Magick of Qabalah” by British author Kala Trobe and is currently available via Amazon, with more platforms to be rolled out shortly. Future releases from the LVX/NOX and Sunna Press e-publishing imprints include works by  T. Thorn CoyleDiana Paxson, and Shen-tat. With the large number of Pagan and occult works that are out of print, this is an exciting and useful first step in using the power of digital publishing to rescue lost classics and important developmental works in the history of our communities.”

For the past thirty years publishing books has been one of the main methods Pagans have gotten the word out about their teachings, philosophies, or ideas. In the days before the Internet publishing a book was one of the only ways to make an impact outside your geographic region. The history and spread of modern Paganism would look very different today if it were not for authors like Margot Adler, Stewart Farrar, Starhawk, or old Gerald Gardner himself. Today, in a world of blogs, smartphones, and ebooks, having your work available on popular e-readers (iPad, Nook, Kindle) is becoming increasingly essential. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of out-of-print books by a number of Pagan and occult authors. Imagine if they were all available for purchase, and under terms where the author, not the publisher, got the bulk of the profits from each sale.

I know for a fact that some publishers of Pagan books have very stringent reversion clauses in their contracts, so I urge all Pagan authors to look at those old papers, and initiate the process of reverting the rights of out-of-print books back to yourself. Even if you decide to do nothing with those rights immediately, it still means that you, or your decedents, can someday sell your work again should you so choose. There is no reason, in this digital age, that your books should be unavailable. You have little to lose, and everything to gain by making all your works available again for sale under terms that you control. You don’t even have to go through Amazon if you abhor their business practices.  Services like Smashwords offer ebook alternatives that favor content creators. Heck, you could create a cooperative with several other authors and do it yourself! The options are endless, but only if you control your own work.

In the era of digital content, who controls your copyright is more important than ever. If you have a book, or several books, that are out-of-print, don’t wait for your old publisher to decide when they are worthwhile again. Start the process of reversion of rights now, because in some cases that process could take years, and will often include clauses that allow publishers to put your work back in print to avoid losing control over your copyright (they may even try to charge you money). If you’ve never thought of your digital rights, now is the time to start.

Jason Pitzl-Waters