Monday, 30 March 2009

First Publication Rights

Most American publishers will only consider a first edition of a book, and while British publishers are a little more flexible on this point at the moment, many are moving round to the American way of thinking.

In publishing, as in so many other areas, there can only ever be one first time. So the instant that you first publish your work you’ve used up your first publication rights: and as you can never have more than one first time at anything, you can’t ever get them back. This is true no matter how that publication is achieved: whether you publish through one of the big conglomerates like Random House, a tiny independent like Salt or Bluechrome (which are growing in stature and reputation every day), whether you self-publish or get to market through one of the many murky vanity presses which lurk on the periphery of the industry: your book has been published and those first rights are irretrievably gone.

Now, if those first rights are granted to a reputable publisher with good editorial skills and a solid sales and distribution system in place, it’s likely to receive a decent amount of promotion and get into a reasonable number of bookshops nationwide. You have a good chance of making a decent number of sales out of that first publication.

If you give those first rights to a vanity publisher or to a disreputable or ill-informed small press, or if you self-publish, you’re unlikely to make many sales at all to anyone other than your family and friends. Even if your book picks up some good quotes or reviews, it is still unlikely to sell in any great quantity. You might find yourself wondering why you didn’t persist in finding a more mainstream publisher to bring your book to the market. And so you start to submit it again, using those good reviews as a selling-point. But you’re in a very difficult position here.

Despite those favourable comments your book has received, you’re likely to have sold relatively few copies of it: you’ll be lucky to have sold one hundred. And although this is many more than most self-published books sell, it’s still not enough to impress the big publishers who will, generally, want to see much higher numbers before they consider publishing a second edition of your work.

18 comments:

Philip Sington said...

Sad but true. It's rare for the Americans to take a British novel that's already been published, unless it wins a prize or becomes a bestseller. I suspect this is not just a business decision, though. I suppose there is something ineffably unexciting about trotting out a new edition of a book someone else has already done, and had a sucess with.
In general, in fact, American publishers are reportedly taking fewer and fewer British (& European) titles, especially of the more 'literary' kind. Whether UK publishers are returning the anti-compliment just yet, I'm not sure.

Paul Lamb said...

Forgive my ignorance, but why is it that a publisher is reluctant/averse to doing a second publication? If the first publication was obscure, it's not as though the new publisher is going to look like it arrived late to the party. Can't a publisher pick up a book and run with it, giving it all the same attention as a first edition, if it feels the book is worthy?

I'm missing something. It seems as though there is an emotional resistance to doing a second publication, and emotional decisions don't seem like they belong in a business environment.

What am I not seeing?

Captain Black said...

Are the first publication rights per (physical) author, or per pen-name?

Jane Smith said...

Paul, here's how I've seen it explained by US publishers.

If you've self-published, then you've already tested your book, as a product, on the marketplace. If it's then failed to sell in any great numbers what you've shown is that it doesn't have the potential to sell in sufficient quantities for a publisher to take it on. This might well be because writers don't have access to the same sales and marketing clout that publishers employ: but still, your book hasn't sold and so you've shown that it's an uncommercial product.

Far from being an emotional reaction, this is a very cold business decision which could well do with some warming up from where I stand: but as publishers have so many titles to pick and choose from, it's no wonder they tend to dismiss books this easily.

What you have to be careful of is the POD publishers etc. who claim not to take any of your rights if you then find a mainstream publisher willing to take your book: even if the POD is happy to revert all rights to you, those first rights have gone for good. And those are the ones that most publishers want.

Rod H said...

I wonder what the position is when a first edition appears which the author subsequently revises quite considerably.

The book, after revision, has not been published before.

Jane Smith said...

Captain, publication rights are per book. The person who owns those rights can change their name as often as they like: but the book will only have one set of first rights in it.

If someone sells first rights to a book then writes a new book, that book will also have first rights available until it's published; but if that person changes his or her name, the books will still only have one set of first rights each--they can't subsequently be published under a different author's name and count as whole new books.

Does that answer your question?

Jane Smith said...

Rod, if such a book were published it would be a new edition of an old title, not a whole new book--because the main portion of the book would have been published in the earlier edition, so it can't be considered a completely different book.

Jane Smith said...

(We're all being a lot more serious today than we were yesterday, aren't we? It's probably more useful than the Pitch Party was, but it's not nearly so much fun.)

Dorset Girl said...

Hi Jane,

What if a US publisher picks up a book from a mainstream UK publisher? Is this second rights too? Or, only if the book has already come out in the UK. Sorry if I'm being stupid. How does this relate to the sale of world rights?

Thanks for being so patient.

Jane Smith said...

Dorset, don't worry: the questions here provide a perfect example of why writers need agents.

If you sell world rights to a book then you can't sell that book into any other territories. However: the publisher which bought those rights can.

So if a UK publisher buys UK first rights, US first rights remain with the writer; if a UK publisher buys world rights to that first publication, then they can then publish in their own territory and either get their US branch to publish there, for example, or sell those rights to a different publisher.

Generally, a writer would get 50% of any such sale.

Some agents prefer to only sell the rights that a publisher is going to use, which means that the writer retains all other rights: but there's a good argument to be made for rights residing with the person or business which has the best chance of making money out of them. There's little point in a writer keeping hold of US rights if he or she has no hope of selling the book into America, when the publisher of their UK edition has a US branch too, or good sales contacts in that country.

Does that make sense? I hope I didn't garble.

Dorset Girl said...

Thanks Jane. I've sold world rights to a book, and just this is happening now. It is very confusing - sometimes a territory is being kept by a branch of the publisher and other times they sell on to a different publisher. Your blog is helping no end - crash course in publishing!

Captain Black said...

Thank you Jane, that's clear.

Jane Smith said...

DorsetGirl, you might want to take a look at this link of mine:

http://howpublishingreallyworks.blogspot.com/2009/02/trios-stories-from-publishings-front.html

Email me if you're interested in participating.

Rod H said...

Jane, thank you for answering my question.

JP_Fife said...

Jane, you should turn a lot of the answers here into a blog post of their own.

Re Rod and revisions, don't publishers recognise and accept revised/updated editions quite easily? I know one of my favourite authors, Bob Shaw, had two novels that were revised and re-issued: Shadow Of Heaven and Vertigo/Terminal Velocity, the latter both being published by Gollancz.

Glen Akin said...

This is really helpful. Thanks a lot, Jane. You're the best!

Jane Smith said...

I would like it noted that I am now formally Very Best Friends with Dorset Girl, JP Fife and Glen Akin, who all recognise my greatness. Thank you!

Ned Cutler said...

Going back to an old topic...

Do you have any views on the fairly recent phenomenon of web novel or blog "publishing" in this context? Is 10,000 visitors to a self-published website novel going to impress anyone (given that they're not paying...)? Have first publication rights gone?