As a general rule, you retain the rights to your book when you act as your own publisher. This is true even if you hire a company—a self-publishing firm—to handle the actual publishing chores for you.
If you’re paying for it, you should retain ownership.
The opposite is true with a traditional publisher, which pays the publication costs and controls your book as long as they keep it in print.
But “general rules” can be bent this way and that, so it pays to read the self-publishing contract very carefully. You want to know exactly what you’re getting into, and you want to know what to keep watch for as the publishing relationship unfolds over time.
What’s Actually in Those Contracts?
Here are ownership sections from three self-publishing book contacts:
- Aventine Press Author Publishing Agreement – “The Author acknowledges and agrees that Aventine Press acquires no right of ownership to the Work under this Agreement; that Aventine Press is a provider of limited services only…”
- Dog Ear Publishing Author Contract – “The Author acknowledges and agrees that Dog Ear acquires no right of ownership to the Work under this Agreement; that Dog Ear is a provider of limited services only as governed by the invoices on which you have paid for services (i.e., publishing services, printing, sales and fulfillment, and web site development)…”
- WingSpan Press Publishing Agreement – “Author acknowledges that Publisher seeks to acquire no right of ownership to the Work under this Agreement. Author shall retain sole and exclusive right to the Work in all formats and editions, worldwide, including electronic rights. No part of this Agreement diminishes Author’s rights to the Work.”
These seem like straightforward statements that you, the author, retain ownership of your work.
And that may be perfectly true, although you would be wise to read the entire contract to see if you retain the rights to items such as the cover design, interior design, and ISBN. You may have paid the self-publishing firm for these items individually or as part of a package fee. Then again, they may have been given to you as a “gift” or “bonus,” in which case you may not really own them.
You should also check the contract carefully to see if and when you can terminate the agreement, and on what terms.
Does the self-publisher charge a fee to let you go before the expiration of the contract? Or are there any fees you must pay to keep your self-publishing contract alive? Here’s an interesting item from the WingSpan agreement:
“Publisher will publish Work in the agreed upon format, and, unless otherwise stipulated by Author, make Work available for wholesale distribution and sale through Ingram Book Group for a period of one year. At the end of the first year of publication, Publisher will deduct then-current catalog fee from outstanding royalties, or issue invoice for same to Author. Renewal fees unpaid for 90 days will result in cancellation of this agreement and removal of Work from publication.”
Do you know what the “then-current” catalog fee will be?
If you terminate, does a self-publisher retain rights to the cover design, interior design, ISBN, or other elements of the work they created and/or paid for? If so, you may have to pay for a new cover or interior design, and a new ISBN.
Be sure to read the self-publishing contract carefully, and read any attachments or other documents mentioned in the contract just as carefully, for they also apply to and may impinge upon your rights.
It’s also important to pay close attention to any and all changes to the contract the self-publisher may make. Yes, some self-publishers reserve the right to change the terms of existing contracts, even after they’ve been signed, filed away by the authors, and forgotten.
The changes may be minor, but even a small change can interfere with your later publication, marketing, or business plans. So beware!