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Rights Reversion: How to Give an Out-of-Print Book New Life with Self-Publishing

The Indie Way with Erika Liodice

I recently reached out to the Writer Unboxed Facebook Community [1] to find out what writers want to know about independent publishing. Women’s fiction author Densie Webb [2] replied:

“The rights to my first book (with a small publisher) revert back to me in January. I’ve thought about self-publishing, but I don’t have a clue how to go about it.” Densie asked for help evaluating the decision, a simple step-by-step process for self-publishing a book, and inexpensive resources to help her navigate the process.

As a creative entrepreneur, I think Densie has an exciting opportunity on her hands, and I’m thrilled to help her consider her options. But before we dive in, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that rights reversion is a nuanced topic largely dictated by the author’s publishing contract. We’re not going down that rabbit hole today, but to learn more about rights reversion, check out Authors Alliance’s [3] free guide, “Understanding Rights Reversion: When, Why & How to Regain Copyright and Make Your Book More Available.” [4]

For the sake of exploring Densie’s situation, I’ll assume all rights will revert to her and she will have complete creative control over her work.

Is There Value in Self-Publishing an Out-of-Print Book?

At some point in your writing career, you might find yourself in a position like Densie’s, weighing whether it’s worth your time, energy, and money to self-publish a title that has reverted to you. I liken the situation to owning a rental property and letting it sit vacant. Your book is an asset, and sidelining it feels like a missed opportunity. Assuming the subject matter is not obsolete, you can leverage your book to expand readership, promote other titles, and generate income for the rest of your life and 70 years after your death (if it was created on or after January 1, 1978; learn more about copyright duration [5]).

Rights reversion can open a world of new possibilities for you and your book, not the least of which is a do over. If you didn’t like your publisher’s cover or title, this is your chance to change it. If the publisher only exploited some of the rights it purchased, you now have the freedom to release the book in new formats, translate it into different languages, and expand distribution to new platforms and geographies. This can also be an opportune time to take a bold new marketing approach—or at least update your book’s front matter to showcase your full list of titles and its back matter with a call to action for readers, such as leaving a review, signing up for your email list, and/or following you on social media.

Can Self-Publishing Rejuvenate Low Sales?

There’s nothing like low sales to shake an author’s confidence. But rather than letting it send you into a negative shame spiral, see it for what it is: a symptom. Your job is to uncover a symptom of what?

Conduct a post-mortem investigation of your book’s previous publication lifecycle to identify what went wrong and build a new plan to increase its chances of success.

Consider questions like:

An honest evaluation of your book and its publication lifecycle can help you replicate effective tactics and eliminate or change those that underperformed. It can also expose areas that may require professional support. Just because it’s called self-publishing or independent publishing doesn’t mean you have to go it alone.

Do I Need to Buy an ISBN?

Changing publishers calls for a new International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Libraries, bookstores, and distributors use ISBNs to identify, keep track of, and properly catalog important information about your book, including author and publisher and what the book is about. Technically, you don’t need an ISBN to publish with most self-publishing platforms, but not purchasing one may limit where you can print, distribute, and sell your title, resulting in fewer opportunities for your book to be discovered and purchased.

Many self-publishing platforms offer authors a free or cheap ISBN when they use their service. However, this type of ISBN usually lists the service’s imprint as the publisher, not you or your publishing company. For example, if you use a free ISBN through IngramSpark, it will hold IngramSpark’s imprint, Indy Pub.

Don’t be fooled by discount ISBN websites, either; Bowker [6] is the official ISBN agency for publishers physically located in the United States and its territories. Buying your own ISBN ensures you or your publishing company is listed as the publisher and eliminates any questions about what you can and cannot do with your book.

What About My Reviews and Sales Rank?

Even if you’re publishing the exact same book, a new ISBN will cause booksellers’ systems to view it as a new product, so you will be starting from scratch in terms of reader reviews and sales rank. Depending on your situation, this may or may not be a significant loss.

If your book earned some strong reviews, consider copying a handful from the book’s previous product page and showcasing them in the description field of its new product page as well as on your author website. If you’ve got enthusiastic blurbs, as Densie does, you can take those with you as well. And you can use this new release as an opportunity to secure additional blurbs for the book’s product pages, its cover, and/or its front matter.

While self-publishing may mean walking away from some value, you will likely take some value with you as well. You will continue to benefit from any promotional activities your publisher pursued to introduce your work to readers who may have never heard of you otherwise. Perhaps the experience set you up with a strong author website, blog following, or newsletter list that you can continue using to reach readers. Maybe it scored you some interviews on popular websites or podcasts that will be enjoyed by new readers for years to come. Take whatever value you gained from the experience and build on it.

How Do I Get Started?

Before you dive into self-publishing, take some time to consider your big picture goals. Is indie publishing a route you might consider for future titles or will your self-publishing pursuits be limited to this one book? If the former is true, you can realize many benefits by establishing your own publishing company. (If that’s a path you want to explore, read my post about how to start your own publishing company. [7])

If the latter is true and you’re planning to self-publish only one title, I’ve laid out a simple step-by-step roadmap for what to do next. Of course, this assumes you’ve already got a professionally edited manuscript in hand. (If not, check out my post about how to find the right editor for your book. [8])

  1. Purchase an ISBN and barcode to identify and sell your book. Most retailers require an ISBN, so purchasing your own enables more efficient marketing and distribution of your title. You’ll only need a barcode for physical copies; it’s placed on the back cover. Buy an ISBN and learn how to use it. [9]
  2. Create a cover that connects with readers. If you didn’t love the cover your publisher used or you don’t have the right to use it, you’ll need to create a new one. Learn more about this process by reading my post about how to create a book cover that connects with readers. [10]
  3. Hire a book formatter. If your publisher does not hand over publication-ready files—or if you want to correct typos, change the story, or spruce up the design—you can hire a book formatter, use online tools like Scrivener [11], Vellum [12] (only available for Mac users), or try the built-in formatting tools available within many of the self-publishing platforms in the next step. Publication-ready files generally include a print-ready PDF for producing print copies of your book, a .mobi file for creating a Kindle e-book, and an ePub file for all other types of e-books.
  4. Set up your distribution network. Create an account with the self-publishing platforms you want to use to sell and/or distribute your book. These may include:
  1. Publish! Each publishing and distribution platform will walk you through a step-by-step process to upload your book and cover files, select your sales categories, provide information about your book, set a price, and publish.

There are additional activities that can enhance your publication experience and increase your book’s exposure in the marketplace, but these five steps represent the basic self-publishing process. If you want to explore self-publishing in greater detail, check out this free resource, “Successful Self-Publishing” by Joanna Penn. [22]

If the do-it-yourself nature of self-publishing doesn’t appeal to you—or, if you simply don’t have the time—you can opt for the hands-on guidance of an independent publishing consultant, like fellow WUer Mary Shafer, founder of Indie Navigator [23], who specializes in helping traditionally published authors take back control of an out-of-print work.

Final Thoughts for Densie

Not only is self-publishing an opportunity for Densie to give an out-of-print book new life, it’s a chance for her to learn new skills that will benefit her writing career. Even if she only self-publishes this one title, she will gain a behind-the-scenes look at the publishing process and learn firsthand about its challenges and opportunities. This knowledge can serve her well when negotiating future book deals and marketing other titles.

Do you have a question about independent publishing or life as an indie author? Leave a comment below or email me (erika [at] erikaliodice.com), and I may answer it in a future post.

Have you self-published an out-of-print book? What helpful advice and/or resources can you offer to Densie and other authors facing this decision?

About Erika Liodice [24]

Erika Liodice is an indie author and founder of Dreamspire Press, where she is dedicated to teaching curious minds about unknown worlds through story. She is the author of Empty Arms: A Novel [25] and the children’s chapter book series High Flyers [26]. She is also a contributor to Author In Progress [27], the Writer Unboxed team’s first anthology. To learn more about Erika and her work, visit erikaliodice.com [28].