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Can You Self-Publish If You’ve Published Traditionally Before?

For many debut authors, self-publishing has become the preferred route, and for good reason. Authors have more control over their work, are able to self-promote more effectively, and can keep a higher percentage of the profits.

If you’ve been published traditionally before, however, you might wonder whether you can pivot to self-publishing. Let’s explore whether self-publishing may be an option for you.

  • First, we discuss what to consider when looking to self-publish a book that has already been published traditionally, which was or is under contract with a publisher.

  • Next, we talk about what traditionally published authors need to keep in mind when looking to self-publish a new, not previously published book.

Self-Publishing a Previously Published Book

You can self-publish a book you’ve previously published with a traditional publisher, but you need to do your due diligence first to ensure you’re legally in the clear.

Your Backlist

A book on the backlist is a book that’s no longer being actively promoted. When your book was first released, it received more attention from your publisher, but as your publisher released other books, yours likely stopped being featured. Your publisher may have decided to stop printing new copies and put the remaining copies on clearance, which is called “remaindering.”

When this is the case, you likely won’t be earning any money from that book, and neither will your publisher. But the good news is that you can recover your backlist and continue to earn passive income from books you published ten, twenty, or thirty years ago.

Reversion of Rights

The first issue to investigate is whether your publisher still holds the rights to your book. The term to understand here is “reversion of rights,” which is the point at which the rights revert from your publisher back to you.

Your contract should state when a reversion of rights will occur, perhaps after a certain period of time or after the book stops achieving certain sales targets and goes “out of print.” Your literary agent should ensure those terms are in your favor, but we recommend that you avoid signing a contract that may allow the publisher to hold the rights to your book indefinitely.

Once your rights revert back to you, you’re clear to self-publish your book.

If your publisher still holds the rights to the book, though, you have some options in terms of requesting a reversion of rights. (Note that publishers will be uninclined to revert your rights if you have yet to earn out your advance.)

Publishers have gotten wise to the longer shelf life of books in the digital age, and they will try to hold on to the rights as long as your book is still selling in any format. Your royalty statements will include sales figures, which you and your agent should be keeping track of. If sales fall below the threshold stated in the contract, you can request a reversion of rights.

As mentioned above, another situation to be aware of is remaindering, which is when your publisher sells your book at a steep discount to clear unsold physical copies out of their inventory. If your contract doesn’t specify that your publisher needs to inform you of this, they can do so without your consent. If your publisher makes you aware that they are remaindering your book, however, you can seize that opportunity to ask them to revert your rights.

Contract Termination

If your contract doesn’t include any specifications around a reversion of rights, you may have to negotiate with your publisher to terminate the contract. Refer to the termination clause, the terms of which will differ depending on what you agreed to, and collect whatever information you need to prove you meet those conditions.

Your publisher may try to throw fees at you to terminate the contract even if you meet the specified conditions. Work with your literary agent or an entertainment lawyer to ensure you don’t make any payments you shouldn’t have to make, and get all your publisher’s requests in writing.

If there is no termination clause in your contract, you can try simply asking the publisher to release you. Again, you will need to get any agreement you come to in writing.

Be prepared for a situation where terminating your contract or buying back the rights to your book would cost more than you would earn from self-publishing it. Determine for yourself how much your rights are worth and whether it may be more profitable for you to simply move on to another project.

Marketing Previously Published Books

Writers today can earn a full-time income from self-publishing. Recovering your backlist means you can start making money off the hard work you’ve already put in, and it can help get your name out there for new book releases.

When preparing to self-publish your previously published book, check the following:

  • Do you need a new book cover? Review your contract to verify this, but in the majority of cases, your publisher will own the rights to the cover art for your book, meaning you don’t have the legal right to use that when self-publishing it.

  • Do you need a new interior layout? You may need to hire a typesetter or book formatter to create a professional new interior, since your publisher will likely retain ownership of the typeset printing proofs.

  • Should the book be proofread? You may wish to proofread the manuscript to correct any errors your publisher never caught.

Check out our list of resources for self-publishers for more on the three points above.

You may also want to make more substantial changes to the manuscript, such as adding a hook that will be resolved in a future book, updating the setting, adding an author bio with a list of places readers can contact you, etc.

Browse Amazon to see what types of books are selling well in your genre and how those books are being marketed. This will help inform your strategy, but below are some ideas to start you off.

  • Get fresh reviews for your book using a service such as BookFunnel.

  • Collect email subscribers for a newsletter through your website or blog.

  • Do a swap with other authors where you promote each other’s books.

  • Price one of your books low or free to attract new readers.

  • Use social media to promote your book and set up an online book launch event.

Explore some more ideas in our blog post on this topic, “How Can You Market Your Book Effectively?”

The possibilities are endless, and the reality is that you may make more by rescuing your backlist than from surrendering it to the fate your publisher would have resigned it to.

Self-Publishing a New Book

Even if you’ve worked with a publishing company for previous books, you may be considering self-publishing your next title. There are many benefits to self-publishing, as you can choose how to package and promote your material and will keep a larger percentage of the profits. We discuss some other considerations in this comparison of self-publishing and traditional publishing.

Typically, you are free to self-publish a new book, but before you decide to ditch your publisher and go down that road, check your previous book contracts to see if they contain an option or “right of first refusal” clause.

Right of First Refusal

If a publishing company has the right of first refusal, it means they have the right to see your next book and decide whether they want to publish it. If your contract states this, you will need to show your book to the publishing company first before you can self-publish it.

The right of first refusal is a fairly standard clause, and if your publisher does want to publish your new book, you can use that opportunity to negotiate a better advance, higher royalty rate, etc. However, if the publisher is unable to make an attractive offer, you’re not obligated to accept. You can refuse the deal and, having fulfilled your obligation to give them the right of first refusal, go on to self-publish your book.

If you’re ready to start self-publishing, we’re here to help. Check out our list of great resources for self-published authors.



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