Disclaimer: This article provides an overview of the basic principles of publishing contracts and rights reversion in the United States. The material contained in this article is NOT legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client or other confidential relationship between the User and the Author Learning Center. Users should contact an attorney in their jurisdiction for legal advice regarding their particular situation.

Question: If I’ve signed my book rights over to a publisher, how can I get those rights back?



Depending on your publishing path, there will likely be a contract you must sign that determines things like copyright ownership and assignment of rights, royalty advances and rates, payment schedule, author warranties and indemnities, contract duration and termination provisions, and options on new works.

When publishing with a traditional publishing house, large or small, you typically assign specific rights to that publisher for a period of time. For many authors, it’s their dream to sign a contract with a traditional publisher, but what happens if that partnership isn’t what you expected, the book isn’t selling well and the publisher has stopped marketing it, or, you want to widen your distribution?

There are many reasons why an author might want their book rights back after assigning them to a publisher, so it’s important to understand how contract terms can impact the process, and what options are available to the author.

Key Elements of a Traditional Publishing Contract

Publishing contracts can be complicated, containing paragraph after paragraph of legal jargon and terms. When broken down into sections, the basic structure of a traditional publishing contract typically includes:

Parties involved and the date: the author, the publisher, and any affiliates.

Property being negotiated: the working title and description – concept, genre, word count, and age range.

When you sign a publishing contract, you may be transferring some or all of your book rights to the publisher.Assignment of rights: permissions you are granting or assigning to the publisher for copyright, territories, languages, and subsidiary rights.

Tasks that are to be performed, by whom, and when: timeline for publication, advertising/promo specifics, and author copies. Also includes publisher’s right to edit.

Payment to whom and when: advance, royalties, payment schedule, author rights if not paid.

Reversion clause: – This is the section of the contract that will outline if you can get your rights back along with when and how.

Contract duration and termination provisions: termination triggering conditions, renewal rights, right to terminate.
NOTE: The termination clause may alternatively contain the reversion provisions.

Representations and warranties: promises the author makes to the publisher including the work is not in public domain, not already published, does not infringe on any copyrights, trademarks or other intellectual property, etc.

Indemnities: a promise from the author to pay legal expenses if the publisher is sued due to a breach in the representations and warranties.

Miscellaneous: additional clauses may include use of the author’s name and likeness, multiple authors, options on new work, applicable law, lawsuit venue, etc.

Before signing ANY publishing contract, we strongly recommend you review it carefully with your literary agent or with an intellectual property attorney if you do not have agent representation. They will help ensure the contract is fair, includes important clauses to protect you and your work, and is not assigning more rights than is necessary.

If you’ve signed a publishing contract for one of your works, we recommend following these steps to determine what rights have been assigned, if the contract contains a reversion clause, and what your options are for getting those rights returned to you:

1. Confirm who controls the publishing rights for your book – all print, digital, and audio rights

Whether or not you control the publishing rights for your book will largely depend on your publishing path. If your book is traditionally published, you likely assigned these rights (and several others) to the publisher, restricting what you are able to do with the book on your own. Self-published and independently published authors typically retain all of their rights in the publishing process. This is one of the big advantages of publishing on your own or through a supported self-publishing company.

If you have reviewed your contract and are still unsure about whether you or your publisher controls the print, digital, and audio rights for your book, we recommend you consult an intellectual property attorney and have them review your publishing contract. In addition, you’ll want to confirm who controls the rights to any artwork included in the book such as cover artwork and any illustration work or images used.

If you self-published or published independently, you have most likely retained your rights and do not need to pursue a reversion of rights to do what you wish with your book.

If you've signed book rights over to a publisher, you will need to check your contract for a reversion clause if you want those rights back.
2. In the case you assigned some or all of your rights to a publisher, does your contract contain a reversion clause?

In a publishing contract, the reversion clause gives authors the opportunity to take back some or all of their book rights when certain thresholds are met or conditions are triggered. These thresholds or triggering conditions depend on the contract. A reversion clause will typically contain a time limit, a sales unit number, or monetary amount threshold. For example, your clause may state that you can request reversion three years after the publication date, if the book has sold less than $100 in the last twelve months.

If you have assigned your rights to the publisher and wish to get them back, you will need to review your contract to see if a reversion clause exists. You will also want to check the termination clause in the contract, as the thresholds or triggering conditions may be included there.

Rights reversion happens most commonly when the book has been “out-of-print” for a period of time, or when sales levels remain low enough, for long enough.

2.1. What if my contract does not contain a reversion clause, or, I haven’t met the reversion thresholds outlined in my contract?

First, don’t panic. There is still a chance you may be able to get your book rights back. Some publishers may be willing to negotiate reversion so it’s really just a matter of asking. They may not have future plans for your work, or, are willing to revert audiobook or foreign rights back to you while retaining print rights, for example. If you haven’t met the reversion thresholds or triggering conditions outlined in your contract and you are still wanting to request a reversion of rights, be sure you understand any consequences outlined in the contract, such as having to repay your advance.

3. How to Request a Reversion of Rights

The best way to communicate to your publisher your intent for reversion of rights is in writing via a registered letter, whether or not your contract contains a reversion clause. Some reversion clauses may require written notice from the author to the publisher, and the publisher is then given a period of time to respond. If you have agent representation for the work in question, check with your agent to see if they would like to write the letter and contact the publisher, or, if they would like you to make that contact.

Here is a reversion clause example from the Authors Alliance’s guide “Understanding Rights Reversion”:

If the Work shall become out of stock and will not be reprinted and is unavailable for sale in any English language edition issued or licensed by the Publisher [Triggering Condition], then the Author may give notice in writing to the Publisher to reprint or reissue the Work [Written Notice Requirement]. If no agreement is reached for the reprinting or reissuing of the Work within 3 months of the Author’s request, all the Publisher’s rights in the Work shall terminate [Timeline].

If you'd like to get your book rights back from your publisher, you will need to write a letter requesting a reversion of rights.In the example above, when the triggering condition is met and the publisher does not respond to the author’s written intent for rights reversion within 3 months, the publisher’s rights are terminated and those rights are reverted back to the author.

Authors have a much better chance of getting rights reverted when the contract contains a reversion clause and the triggering conditions are met, but, publishers are often willing to negotiate reversion, or grant an author the necessary permissions to do what they want with their book. If you are in the processing of reviewing a publishing contract, be sure it contains a reversion clause prior to signing.

The amount of time it takes for a publisher to respond to a reversion request can take several months, or even longer. You will want to wait for their response and for confirmation that the rights have been reverted to you before doing anything with your book, and you may need to follow-up to get a resolution. Ultimately, a publisher will consider several factors when reviewing a request for reversion of rights including the book’s age, sales history, market size, and distribution.

For the best possible outcome, authors must state why they are requesting a reversion of rights in the letter and highlight any triggering conditions that have been met. If the publishing contract does not contain a reversion clause, the author should provide evidence in the letter that supports why their rights should be reverted and try to persuade the publisher to comply. The key is to remain reasonable and professional in all communications and throughout the entire process.

Signing a publishing contract and assigning your book rights to a publisher is not something to be taken lightly. The best way to avoid making costly errors is to work with your literary agent, or hire an intellectual property attorney if you do not have agent representation.

For more resources related to rights reversion, including templates and guidance on how to craft a persuasive rights reversion letter, visit https://www.authorsalliance.org/resources/rights-reversion-portal/. You can also visit the "Contracts" section of the Author's Guild for additional resources on complex legal topics related to publishing.

 Photo credit: alexskopje via Getty Images
Photo credit: adrian825 via Getty Images
Photo credit: Cunaplus_M.Faba via Getty Images