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


  • I’ve a pretty good relationship with the publishers that took up my nonfiction books, but I think I might publish my fiction independantly. In fact I’m doing the layout design right now…

    • I’m happy to hear your happy. Out of curiosity, do you know what the terms of reversion are once your non-fiction titles go out of print?

    • Because this post is five days old you may not see this comment, but I’m hoping you will since you didn’t answer the email I sent you asking about this.

      I’m very interested in buying two of your books, but I’m trying to stick to my decision to avoid buying any more physical books because we simply don’t have the space to keep them all and I’m tired of having to give away books that I might read again so that I can have shelf space for new ones. So is there any hope that your books will be in any ebook format any time in the near future?

  • One of the most important aspects of e-books is that they are good for the environment — no trees wasted! As our power companies move from coal burners to more sustainable wind generators, e-books will help our ecology.

    • Thelettuceman

      Because the production of ereaders, the power consumed to recharge them, and the disposal of the waste of expended batteries/technologies is such a good alternative. Please.

      • Comparative to the immense amount of pollution cause by a great many paper mills? Yes. Between the waste from landfills, the pulp and chemicals of book production in rivers and bodies of water, ereaders’ impact is minor compared to book printing.

        • But we have to remember, the permanence of an ebook is fleeting. A book of actual paper (in addition to be much more fun to read than just an ebook) actually has permanence to it. My book collection, properly cared for, could last for decades, if not longer. An Ebook? gets busted, broken, it’s gone. A hundred years from now, two hundred, more, it’s not gonna even leave a trace of the literature that was there, while a physical book could.

          So yes, an ebook might be better for the environment in a few ways, but a physical book? That’s better for the world.

          • Harmonyfb

            A book of actual paper (in addition to be much more fun to read than just an ebook

            Yes, but you can’t cram 40 books into a regular hardback and stick it in your purse for traveling. Which is why I also own an e-reader. That way, I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to carry all the books I’ll get to on any given trip.

            The two (physical and e-format books) are not an either/or situation.

          • “The two (physical and e-format books) are not an either/or situation.”

            Agreed, there are distinct advantages to both electronic and print format. I definitely agree with Norse Alchemist on his points, as well as yours Harmonyfb. I like the storage capacity and low impact an ereader has, but I am also very-much a bibliophile and would be very happy with my own library some day.

          • Harmonyfb

            Replying to Sarenth below:

            I like the storage capacity and low impact an ereader has, but I am also very-much a bibliophile and would be very happy with my own library some day.

            I love print books, as well (we’ve got over 1,000 in the house, and a couple of boxes in storage. Not enough shelves.) I find that for more ephemeral books (like paperback mysteries which I read like popcorn and never refer to again), e-format is a good way to go.

        • Thelettuceman

          Do you have any idea what exactly modern computer technology is made from? At all? Plastics which do not naturally decompose. Ever. Rare Earth minerals that amount to the wholesale rape and degradation of the Earth in order to collect. Lithium-ion batteries which love to collect in landfills, are corrosive to human skin on contact, and have a significant recent history of recalls due to overheating and the -threat of explosion-. The ever increasing, exponential, technological boner that Western civilization has. What about all the WASTE that goes into the ability for you to download the bloody book itself? I bet your ISP sure as hell doesn’t get the majority of its power from Green sources, nor are the servers that hold the ebooks by ANY MEASURE of thought clean, energy efficient, or eco-friendly. The companies that make these ereaders are going to be doing their best to get the consumer hooked on the next model, even if it is only months after the release of a previous one. And people will buy it, perpetuating the further rape of the Earth for minerals, the overcrowding of landfills, and the

          I’m not saying that the production of books is a clean system. But perpetuating the idea that digital readers and ebooks are healthier for the world is ridiculous. It’s trading one pollutant for another. But that’s okay, if it’s shiny and new. Isn’t it?

          • Thelettuceman

            Edit: ‘And people will buy it, perpetuating the further rape of the Earth for minerals, the overcrowding of landfills, and the’ should read, ‘And people will buy it, perpetuating the further rape of the Earth for minerals, and the overcrowding of landfills.’ Had a long day at work, and I am tired.

          • Great, now I have to get an ebook reader. How can I say no to a book of world destroying nature that could potentially explode! :/

            And seriously? the whole “rape of mother earth and hard on” stuff? please come up with something more original and less misandric for your arguments.

          • Thelettuceman

            Simply pointing out a fact that if people consider the harvesting of trees a waste to the environment, then the mining and extraction of Rare Earth minerals is far more destructive. Deal with it.

          • No, neither I nor my ISP get our energy from many, if any Green sources. That said, I do lobby my congresspeople and look to reduce waste where and when I can. I buy used books where able. However, I also recognize that ereaders can be part of the solution, and if disposed of properly, do not present anywhere near the hazards that they can at the rate people are, as you note, throwing away lithium ion and similar battery devices.

            The production of books is simply not cleaner, based on the impact that it has on rivers, groundwater, and environment surrounding paper mills and chemical plants, as compared to the health protocols and leaks in comparison to landfills and public waste.

            Taking all my previous arguments away, the amount of time it would take a fresh, new book to be produced, shipped, sold, and transported back to my home, the cost raises quite a bit, especially when we’re receiving paper from China or at the least across state lines.

            That said, I recognize your arguments against ereaders, and I think that many of your points they have merit.

            In terms of direct and ongoing impact, paper mills are devastating.


    • Anonymous

      Yeah, but paper books don’t have DRM and your copy can’t be erased without your permission. Also, paper books can last for centuries – how long will an e-reader last?

      • Julie

        That’s why my ebook is on Smashwords, even though I used Amazon’s CreateSpace for paper publishing. No DRM, no control over the readers. And it works with almost all readers, so it should outlast any given model.

      • Reply to both Kerri Connor and Eran Rathan: Dunno about e-books but old computers recycle easily — if you take them apart. In our area, there is a free service that does this for you — using prisoners as labor — great on three levels: Recycling, keeping inmates busy and making them work to pay for their housing. Then the plastic, glass and metal is all scrapped and goes to make car parts and new computers. Books also recycle, true.

        • Anonymous

          Alice –
          I don’t disagree that computers can be recycled, my point is more the amount of control one has of any particular medium. Example: I have an autographed first edition copy of “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” – how can you have something comparable on an e-reader? Additionally, remember the debacle two years ago when Amazon decided to strip 1984 from all the Kindles (in a stroke of extreme irony)?

          Any e-reader with proprietary software is subject to this exact sort of censorship.

    • Kerri Connor

      books are far easier to recycle than ereaders are – and I’ve yet to find an ereader that is biodegradeable. They are TERRIBLE for the environment, they just like to tell people they are good so people will buy them.

  • At Immanion Press, we do e-books for our authors and offer 50% royalties on the e-books. I like smashwords. Its a good service to use for e-books. It is important authors get their reversion rights checked, so they can get their books re-published whether through their own efforts or through an indie press. Larger publishers are starting to realize that their day in the sun, is finally, thankfully, over, but they are still fighting back, which is why its so important authors take a stand for their rights.

  • Anonymous

    I should mention this site for any aspiring authors:

    there is a ton of good information about which publishers are good to work with and which are total drek.

  • Charles Cosimano

    I believe there was actually a Supreme Court decision on this some years ago that said that the electronic rights remained with the author no matter what the contract might say. Of course that was before e-readers so I don’t know what the case law now is.

  • @Jason: One of the few other blogs that I read (outside of this one) is one by Passive Guy. Every day he underscores the importance of authors keeping control of their content and watching their own bottom line. The same goes for Dean Wesley Smith and his wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Smith says, try it for a year or two on your own and if you want, go to a legacy publisher, but give yourself a shot first. Even NPR had a story about how Barry Eisler has forgone legacy publishing because it was simply a much smarter business move.

    In an online conversation with the late Ellen Cannon Reed, she often bemoaned the raw deal she got from a certain very famous publisher who took the one work that her heart and soul was in and basically let it be in print for a year and refused to reprint it in spite of demand for it. She was very bitter about it, quite honestly, and she wasn’t able to shop it out to another publisher. The same went for the late Robert Masters’ book on Sekhmet. It was the same publisher, btw. My son’s godmother just got a book deal with them, and I am terrified that nothing has changed and that she will also be stuck as far as eRights go.

    Publishers are handing out less money for advances now. Some publishers, are in deep resentment about making the jump to eBook format in addition to print. I would say that if anyone is thinking about signing a contract with any publisher – really think about it first. Think of what you are giving up versus just simply getting your book published.

  • I’m sure there’s a number of Pagan publishers who would be a great resource on how this can play out in Pagan publishing, among them Asphodel and Immanion Press, and BBI Media as well. They may also be able to give guides on how they do business and handle copyright and other rights of authors as well.

  • Pitch313

    Authors who have not bothered to look at the rapidly changing intellectual property rights scene vis a vis e-texts probably ought to. Conventions, arrangements, common understandings, and habits–as well as legal workings–are changing rapidly and often.

    But book readers and buyers of e-texts probably should take a closer look, too.

    A useful starting point may be: E-books do not behave like physical books. Their prices are not determined in the same manner as physical books. They are not the property of the buyer-reader as physical books are. And they may, for all intents, be linked in a proprietary fashion to a particular type of reader and/or distribution agency. Buying e-books is not by any means an anonymous procedure, and seems generally to require a registered account with a distribution agency. And no e-book aftermarket exists because digital rights arrangements do not allow re-sale of e-books.

    I think that buyers/readers of Pagan-themed books probably ought to continue to shop at stores selling physical books and not rely on this e-text-and-device model to make available all those old or out-of-print rec sources they need.

    • You have a point in your last paragraph, Pitch. No doubt there are a few of us who have bought long-out of print and rare books. Sometimes the electronic version of that book being completely unreadable. For example, a few years ago, I managed to lay my hands on Gatien Cortilz de Sandras’ “Memoirs of the Comte de Rochefort” in its first Englsh translation (ca. 1704). This was the authro that inspired Alexandre Dumas to write the Three Musketeers, etc. This is in the printing stile when “f’s” and “S’s” were interchangable and the markup language, since it was still moveable type on a very archaic type of printing press of the era it did not scan well for the free electronic copy and it was absolutely unreadable.

      Even now with modern books, the challenge of illustrations still exists. If you don’t insert them right or they are too small, the electronic version is not nearly as good as the print version.

      I honestly do not think that electronic books will ever replace physical books – not entirely. It is a tool, just like any other and at present – you can lend eBooks, and with Amazon, you can legally have them on up to six different devices at once.

      The technology isn’t perfect – but then it keeps changing and opening up new possibilities for both writers and readers of books – whatever form they might take.