Tag Archives: copyright

The Paperwork of Publishing (part two)

Copyright symbolThere’s a long discussion about copyright in my guild to independent publishing, Publish Your Book Your Way but here’s the core lesson you need to know—you are not required to register your work with the U.S. Copyright office in order for your rights to be protected.

HOWEVER, if you ever get into a dispute over copyright, the entity who registers it with the U.S. Copyright office has the stronger case.

That’s why we recommend you handle this part of publishing yourself. You can do this online here: U.S. Copyright office.

Now, traditional publishers generally do this for their authors, and under these circumstances, it’s legit as long as you understand that you’ll never have complete control over your own work again. This is how traditional publishing works—they pay you money, you relinquish rights in return.

If you’re publishing your work independently, then please register your own copyright. It’s $35 if you do it online, $65 if you do it through the mail. The copyright form is pretty straightforward. Just remember to send them two copies of your book when it’s published.

The real rub over copyright comes in the self-publishing realm. Every self-publishing company brags about the fact that “you retain your copyright” to your work. And it’s true that some of them will register your work in your name with the U.S. Copyright office.

But there’s a significant percentage of self-publishing companies who will register your work under their name. In essence, they are stealing (yep, let’s call it what it is) the rights to your work.

Our advice from here is simple—buy your own ISBNs and register your own copyright with the U.S. Copyright office. That way, there’s no question who’s in control of your work.

Copyright vs. Publishing Right

Books in red
Sonja Hakala’s Your Book, Your Way is being revised and renamed. You can read sections of What Would William Shakespeare Do? in real time right here. If you want to start at the beginning, you can by clicking here.

For an author, the term “copyright” usually means being recognized as the creator of a work.

To a publisher, however, the term “copyright” has everything to do with the buying and selling of rights to publish a book.

Here’s a partial list of the multitude of publishing licenses inherent in a single author’s copyright.

• Hardcover book on paper

• Softcover book on paper

• Electronic book

• Audio book

• Movie rights

• Foreign language rights

• Television rights

• Magazine rights


When an author seeks a traditional publisher for her or his work, that author is seeking a buyer for their publishing rights. That is the basic exchange spelled out in a publishing contract.

Now, most authors are way too excited about landing a contract from a traditional publisher to consider all of the implications of this exchange so before you head off to look for a pen, let’s talk about this while your head is clear.

When you sell a company the license to publish your book, that license is exclusive to that publisher and in this day and age, it’s rare for a traditional publisher to buy anything less than all the publishing licenses for a book in perpetuity.

Here are some of the implications inherent (and unwritten) in a traditional book contract:

• Authors are forbidden from selling copies of their book directly to bookstores, libraries and most other retail venues.

• Authors receive a set number of copies of their book (usually 50) from their publisher. After that, they agree to pay a certain price (usually 40% less than retail) to purchase additional copies of their book from their publisher.

• The final say on editorial changes, retail price, royalty rates, the size of a print run, distribution, covers, back cover copy, interior design, and title belong to the publisher.

• Authors are expected to actively market their books. In fact, most publishers seek authors who are active marketers. It is rare for a publisher to contribute funding toward an author’s marketing campaign.

• Publishers are responsible for sending out review copies of an author’s book. Authors are expected to suggest review outlets. Sending out review copies generally constitutes the entirety of a publisher’s marketing efforts.

• The active marketing cycle for most books is 90 days from publication date in traditional publishing. After that period of time, active marketing support for a book diminishes until it doesn’t exist at all.

• Even though publishers drop most marketing efforts for a book after 90 days, they still retain the exclusive right to publish it. This right exists even if there are no copies of a book available for purchase by readers.

• Writers can buy back the publishing rights to their books for a price. Sometimes that price is very low. Sometimes it is high.

• If your publisher goes out of business, goes bankrupt or is sold to another company, the publishing licenses it holds are considered assets of the company and stay with the company. They do not revert to their authors.


Self-publishing companies operate in a somewhat shadowy realm between traditional publishing and independent publishing. We’ll get into more detail about them later on but for now, here’s what you need to know about the implications of signing a contract with a self-publishing company.

• The author agrees to pay a certain amount of money to the company for services such as editing, cover, interior design, and marketing.

• The company creates the formats in which a book is made available to readers, usually a PDF for books-on-paper and ebook files

• Self-publishing company contracts stipulate that they are the “owners” of all original formats (PDF or ebook file) from which books are made available to readers EVEN THOUGH this work is paid for by authors.

• Distribution of self-published books is usually limited to the company’s website and online retailers. Most bookstores will not stock self-published books. Libraries will not buy them.

• Some self-publishing company contracts allow authors to purchase the original formats of their books—PDFs and ebook files—for a price that’s not included in the service agreements that authors have already paid for.

Yep, if you want them, you get to pay for those files twice.


It is vitally important that authors understand their rights before venturing out on any publishing path. There is no room for sentiment here. Copyright is all about business. It is what you, as an author, are selling. Wearing a hard hat is recommended.

That being said, here are two pieces of advice to take with you if you decide to explore options in either the traditional or self-publishing realm.

• Seek the services of a reputable agent or copyright attorney before you sign any contracts with a traditional publisher.

• Don’t go anywhere near self-publishing companies.

The Bedrock of All Publishing—Copyright

FreePile for web

Sonja Hakala’s Your Book, Your Way is being revised and renamed. You can read sections of What Would William Shakespeare Do? in real time right here. If you want to start at the beginning, you can by clicking here.

As a description, the term “traditional publishing” is rather new. Before the year 2000 or so, you didn’t need to distinguish this form of publishing from any other. It was just “publishing.”

We’re in a brave new world now but the norms and standards of traditional publishing still dictate how the whole world of books thinks and operates.

You don’t need to understand every detail and byway of the book biz but there are some big concepts you ought to know, and COPYRIGHT is the fundamental concept that underpins all of book publishing.

The basic agreement between traditional publishers and writers is this—publishers agree to underwrite the cost of producing, distributing, marketing and selling an author’s work in exchange for a portion of its sales revenue and the right to be that work’s only publisher.

Before digital technology changed book publishing forever, copyright was a singular noun, and it meant that authors sold the rights to print and distribute their works on paper to individual publishers.

But consider how many forms a book can take now—electronic, audio, as the basis of a film or television show, in a serial, in an anthology, in a multitude of foreign languages, and on the web as well as on paper.

Each of these forms represents a right that an author owns as soon as she or he makes a work manifest in some way—on paper, on a computer, in a recording, on video. And authors own these rights for their lifetime plus 70 years. This is the bedrock of copyright law.

In the United States, there is no legal requirement that a work be registered with the federal copyright office in order for an author’s copyright to exist.

Is it a good idea to register your work on Copyright.gov? Yes, in most cases.

But it is NOT a legal requirement.

Publishers have responded to the multiplicity of copyrights by crafting contracts that often take all the publishing rights to a book—in perpetuity.

This is as true for traditional publishers as it is for self-publishing companies.

Unfortunately, too many authors realize that they’ve lost the rights to their works long after the ink is dry on their contracts. To counter this, our standing advice is twofold.

  • If you decide to pursue publishing with a traditional company, do so with the guidance and advice of a copyright attorney or a reputable agent.
  • Don’t go anywhere near companies that market themselves as self-publishers.

There’s a lot to be said about copyright, and it is important that authors understand their rights before venturing out on any publishing path. There is no room for sentiment here. Copyright is all about business so you really need to wear your hard hats.

There’s always more to learn about copyright, and you can start by reading here, here, here and here.




The Wild, Wild West of Book Publishing

Books in red

If you take a little tour of self-publishing companies just to see what they’re up to (making sure that you never give them any contact information whatsoever or you will be haunted by sales calls and emails), you’ll notice they all stipulate that “authors retain all their rights.”

And in a way, that is correct—in most cases.

But the publishing world is as full of miscreants as any other industry. And with the Wild, Wild West atmosphere now ruling this once staid industry, there’s a lot of room for scam artists of all varieties.

That’s why we always recommend that you—and only you—register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright office. That way, there is no question at all who owns the rights to your work.

You see, the unscrupulous self-publishing companies know that whoever is the registered copyright holder is the entity whose rights to it are recognized by the courts.

It’s also a good way to separate the unscrupulous from the scrupulous. If you do choose to use a self-publishing company (something we never recommend but that’s your choice), then a good litmus test of their legitimacy is how they react to you registering your own copyright.

It will be the best $35 you ever spent on your writing career.