The Days Passed, the Nights Passed

[February 2008] When I was a kid, the National Film Board of Canada ran short documentary vignettes between TV shows. One that I remember vividly was about Christopher Columbus’s expedition to the New World. The film was stop-motion with ships rocking up and down on conspicuously fake waves. The line that stands out in my mind explained how long the journey lasted and how some people were getting impatient. “The days passed. The nights passed. The crew began to grumble.” 1

The passage of time testing our patience is familiar to writers. We wait to hear about submissions. When we’re fortunate enough to have something accepted, we wait for the work to make its way through the publication process. A recent New York Times essay asks the quasi-rhetorical question Why Does it Still Take So Long To Publish a Book? In it, Rachel Donadio writes, “For writers, few steps in the publishing process are as strange as the state of suspended animation between submitting a manuscript and seeing the book appear in stores. The sudden change in cabin pressure from writing to waiting can be jarring — and can last a very long time.”

Waiting is part of the business, but there is a limit to what most of us are willing to put up with. The publisher can’t acquire your work and then just sit on it indefinitely. Well, let me phrase that differently—if you have done due diligence, the publisher can’t do that. However…

I sold a short story to an anthology four years ago. The anthology had an editor, of course, a publisher, and a tentative publication date. Editorial work was performed on the story. Contacts were executed. And then the waiting began. The publisher slowed down. They regrouped. They waffled. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to things because the editor kept us up to date on the ever-shifting publication date. It wasn’t one of those worrying situations where everything goes quiet.

I’m a patient guy, and it was just one story out of many. However, at a certain point I grew frustrated. The publisher was going to release the book as an expensive hardcover, which meant it probably wasn’t going to sell many copies. I decided enough was enough, so I went to the file cabinet where I store my submissions to look at the contract to see when the rights reverted to me. That’s when I discovered my oversight. The contract lacked a reversion clause.

Now, I’m not a contract lawyer, so there may be conditions under which I could have reclaimed my story rights any way, but I felt stuck. The days passed and the nights passed. The weeks, months and years, too. I didn’t grumble—well, not much, anyway, and not to anyone where it would have mattered.

The story has a happy ending, though, in that the publisher ultimately decided not to release the anthology in question and the story was returned to me. I made a personal vow: to never again sign a contract that did not have a rights reversion clause.

A good and fair contract protects both parties—in this case, the author and the publisher. Short story contracts tend to be fairly simple documents; occasionally, as I discovered, to their detriment. A reversion clause is not complex. “It is understood that if the Anthology is not published within twenty-four (24) months of the signing of the Agreement, all rights granted thereunto the Editors will automatically revert to the Author, and any advance paid will not be deemed returnable.”

Mind you—this clause was written by the editors, and it is solely for the author’s benefit. Isn’t that cool? It’s part of a fair arrangement between the two parties. If the editor can’t get his or her act together and produce the book containing your work, at some point they’ll throw up their hands and say “uncle.” What’s especially cool is the final clause: any money I’ve been paid in advance is mine, mine, mine. Woo-hee. The clause is a motivator for the editor, anathema to procrastinators.

I’ve also been the beneficiary of reversion clauses. My agent sold translation rights to my first book to a foreign publisher. The contract gave them two years to produce the book. They didn’t. If some day they decide to get their rear in gear and proceed with the translation, they have to ante up all over again. In the interim, I’m at liberty to pursue other options.

The language can vary. Here’s another version “In the event that the above-mentioned Anthology has not been published within 24 months of signing of this agreement, rights revert to the Author, and the Author has the right to sell or arrange for publication of the above-named Work in any manner. Author is expected to make no repayment of advances if for any reason—publication delays or otherwise—rights under this agreement have reverted to the Author.” This one spells out what the word “reversion” implies, but it all means the same thing.2

It’s easy to overlook something that isn’t there. We read and reread our contracts, looking for a word out of place, or a rights grab, or an excessive period of exclusivity, but it’s very easy to miss something that’s missing.

Failing to include a reversion clause is a fairly common occurrence in small press contracts. I’m a member of a mailing list where a group of writers are discussing the fates of stories they have had accepted for a couple of anthologies that have been delayed.

The days are passing, the nights are passing—it’s a shame to hear the crew grumbling.

1The documentary had an ironic ending. Just as the lookout discovered land, a Viking longboat is shown in the distance heading back across the Atlantic for home, a nod to the fact that Columbus didn’t actually discover terra incognito. But that’s neither here nor there.

 2This isn’t the end of the story when it comes to reversion clauses. Different language is required for works that remain in print—book-length works, in other words. Contracts for these works must cover the circumstances under which the book is declared out of print, at which time rights should once again return to the author. That’s another issue altogether.



Comments are closed.