Dear Writer Beware,I often receive such questions from authors who've tried and failed to get their rights back from their scammy or incompetent publishers, and are desperate to publish their books somewhere else. Can I change my title? Or the names of all the characters? Move the setting to a different country? Alter 10% of the book and legally make it a new work? Would my deadbeat publisher notice? Would it sue me?
A couple of years ago, I published my mystery novel with [insert name of well-known deadbeat publisher here]. My contract won't expire for several more years, but I'm very unhappy with [deadbeat publisher] and would like to get out from under it. Can I change my title and publish on Amazon and hope [deadbeat publisher] won't see it?
In many cases, the answer to those last two questions is "very likely not." The odds that an author mill pumping out hundreds of books a year with minimal staff and attention would realize you'd re-published your work, or that an amateur small press struggling to stay afloat would have the resources to bring legal action against you, are probably pretty slim.
There's still a risk, though. And even if there weren't, these are still the wrong ways to escape a bad contract or a bad publisher. Here's why.
1. Traditional publishers want exclusive publishing rights, and their contracts require you to warrant that you are fully empowered to grant them. But if you're already contracted to another publisher, you cannot grant exclusive rights to someone else (regardless of any revision you may do--see #3 below). A new publisher won't want your book under those conditions--and signing a new publishing contract without disclosing that your rights are already encumbered would constitute fraud.
What if your old publisher was some super-obscure micropress that barely even managed to get your book on Amazon? Or went out of business without ever publishing? You may be able to make a convincing argument that your rights have returned to you if you can definitively show that your old publisher is out of business. Don't try and fool a new publisher, though--it's better to tell the truth and try to work things out than to lie and hope you won't be discovered. The Internet is forever: if your book was ever on sale, there's a record of it somewhere. A new publisher will not be pleased to learn that you haven't been completely candid.
(As a corollary, if your publisher has gone into bankruptcy or insolvency, do not assume that your rights have automatically reverted, regardless of what your contract says. Publishing contracts are assets that can be sold to pay creditors, and for that reason, courts don't generally honor bankruptcy and insolvency clauses.)
2. Unlike traditional publishers, self-publishing platforms only want non-exclusive rights. But they, too, require you to warrant that you are fully empowered to grant those rights--and if you're bound to an exclusive publishing contract, you can't do that.
For instance, here's the relevant language from Kindle Direct Publishing Terms of Service (my bolding):
5.8 Representations, Warranties and Indemnities. You represent and warrant that: (a) you have the full right, power and authority to enter into and fully perform this Agreement and will comply with the terms of this Agreement; (b) prior to you or your designee's delivery of any content, you will have obtained all rights that are necessary for the exercise the rights granted under this Agreement; (c) neither the exercise of the rights authorized under this Agreement nor any materials embodied in the content nor its sale or distribution as authorized in this Agreement will violate or infringe upon the intellectual property, proprietary or other rights of any person or entity, including, without limitation, contractual rights, copyrights, trademarks, common law rights, rights of publicity, or privacy, or moral rights.And here's Smashwords (again, my bolding):
9a. By submitting Your Work to Smashwords for publication, You, the Author or the Author you represent (if you are an Agent or Publisher) author’s Publisher or Agent or Distributor, warrant and represent that the work is complete and the author:Just about any self-publishing platform--whether reputable or not--has similar terms. What happens if you breach them? Potentially, oblivion. All self-publishing platforms reserve the right to terminate your account and/or remove your work from sale if you breach your warranties (or any of their guidelines).
• is the only author of the Work;
• is the sole owner of the rights herein granted;
• has not assigned, pledged, or encumbered such rights or have not entered into any agreement which would conflict with the rights granted to Smashwords herein; and agrees not to do any of the aforementioned without first unpublishing the work at Smashwords
• has full right, power, and authority to enter into this Agreement and to grant the rights granted herein.
Don't assume they won't find out. Amazon, for instance, scours KDP for plagiarism; I've heard from authors whose legitimately re-published backlist works were removed from sale because anti-plagiarism algorithms tagged the original versions.
3. The "change 10% and legally make it a new work" thing is a common trope, but it is a myth. Ditto for changing all the characters' names, or moving the book to a new setting. There's no legal standard for how much, or how little, of a book you can alter or revise to transform it sufficiently to create a new copyright.
Bottom line: there are no shortcuts or workarounds to rights reversion--and reverting rights is essential if you want to get out from under a deadbeat publisher and give your book new life somewhere else.
I've written some posts that may help:
How to request rights reversion from your publisher.
Getting out of your book contract (maybe).