Thursday, May 23, 2002
Dear Neil,
I have a question concerning how an author would get the rights to her books back after they've been out of print for years. My grandmother was a writer years ago, and would like to get the rights to her books, but the publishing company doesn't seem intent on releasing them, even though the books were never huge sellers, and can't be found anywhere. I was wondering if there's any procedure to these things, because while my grandmother is pretty mild mannered, and will let it go if it seems impossible, I can tell she would really like to have this happen. Thank you very much for looking this over!

Well, the first thing to do would be to look over her contracts. Normally contracts with publishers have clauses which explain how long the publisher has bought the book for [e.g. 10 years, 15 years, "term of copyright"] and other clauses explaining the circumstances under which the book will revert to the author.

Normally, books revert to the author if they're out of print and the publisher won't bring them back into print, within a certain time, when asked. The author has to write to the publisher and ask for the rights back.

Some publishers will simply write back and release the rights. Some will shuffle and delay. I've one publisher in the UK who is simply refusing to return the rights to a book that's been out of print for years, and I've gone to the next step, which is to send the contracts and correspondence to the Society of Authors, who have agreed to help sort it out. I've often wished that there was an organisation for writers in the US that had the same sort of clout as the Society of Authors. (The Writers Guild, of which I'm a member, is a terrific union for screenwriters or TV writers, but does nothing for book people, while the various associations of writers of SF, Romance, Horror etc., while laudable and doing a number of excellent things, simply aren't taken as seriously by publishers.)

The only problem I can see your grandmother might have would be if the books were a licensed property or were done "work for hire". Get a copy of the contracts. If your grandmother doesn't have them, write to the publisher and have them send you a copy. Read it. Take it from there.