You May Own the “Copyright”…But You DON’T Own the Book Rights!

You May Own the “Copyright”…But You DON’T Own the Book Rights!

Could you give me your opinion? Last summer, I sold a short story to a publisher who put it into an e-book anthology. The contract I signed said that I retained the copyright, but the publisher had exclusive rights to publish the story in hardback BOOK form, paperback BOOK form, electronic BOOK form, and audio BOOK form. I found somewhere that pays well for previously published stories, and sells them as e-stories. My husband said it would be the same as an e-book, and would violate my contract. I say that it is like an old 78 rpm single–just one song from a record album. What do you think?

Thank you.

Angela’ first response:

Hi Mary,

How are the e-stories being sold by the new publisher? As anthologies? Single stories? Are they downloadable from sites like Amazon?


Mary’s response:

The first publisher I sold my short story to published it as an e-book anthology, along with four or five other stories. The anthology is for sale as a download on Amazon.

The place I was looking at submitting my short story sells downloads of short stories as single stories for an e-reader device.

A few months ago, after a little prodding, the publisher of the original anthology did say it was within my rights to submit my story to a magazine or a contest. But she probably thought it was unlikely that I’d find someplace that wanted previously published work. She didn’t say anything about the possibility of me selling it as a downloadable single story. I’m kind of afraid to ask, to tell you the truth. She was on the fence about me including my story in a book of all my own work, and I didn’t want to push her. But, it would be nice to make some more money off that story!

Thanks for your help.

Angela’s answer:

I agree with your husband. The new outfit would be selling your story as an ebook, albeit a small one. You can’t do that based on your contract with the original publisher.

One option is to contact the original publisher to ask if you can do this. If you offer to add a line to the story that says “originally published in XYZ Anthology,” they might let you republish it. But, of course, the new publisher may not want to include such verbiage so you’d need to clear it with them, too.

This is one of the risks when selling rights to another firm. While they allegedly claimed you retained copyright, they actually purchased ALL book rights from you. So, you’re “copyrights” are not worth much.


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One Response to "You May Own the “Copyright”…But You DON’T Own the Book Rights!"

  1. Sunpenny MD  January 9, 2016 at 9:14 am

    What you have actually done is LICENCED the first publisher to use your rights in the various stipulated ways. As long as that licence remains in place, and they don’t relinquish the rights, then they have the right to disallow all similar use of the work by anyone else. They may make a special allowance for you to have the story printed elsewhere as well, but get it in writing. What they also may do is demand a small royalty from the new publisher, if they do allow usage. It depends on the wording of your contract, too, as to how long they are allowed to retain the licence. There should be somewhere in your contract that states that if there have been no sales for a certain period of time, then the rights return to you. Very few publishers will happily put a clause in that limits the term of usage but it’s possible, eg they may have contracted the rights for two years, but it’s very unusual because that means they have to cease selling the anthology after that time, if you don’t renew. So the more equitable method is to put a clause in that states if they have stopped selling (or if sales have fallen below a certain number over a duration) then the author regains their rights. Without knowing exactly what your contract says, it’s difficult to advise what you can and can’t do, other than agreeing that the contract would appear to own licence to the story for an unlimited period of time.