Why and How I Got My Rights Back from HarperCollins

Image: urban wall with graffiti reading "Let's start over."
“lets start over” by lonely radio is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Today’s post is by author, journalist and entrepreneur Anna David (@annabdavid), founder of Launch Pad Publishing.

When I sold my first book, Party Girl, to the ReganBooks division of HarperCollins in 2005, I thought I’d won the book lottery. Judith Regan was the rainmaker—so successful at making her authors successful that she’d actually become famous for it.

After the acquisition, the dream continued. I had exciting, glamorous lunches with Regan executives who were so important that they had assistants that came to the lunches (a move, my then-agent told me, was “classy”). My editor thought we should try to sell a reality show about me. Judith thought I should be featured on the cover—an idea she shared with me several hours before she was fired.

Because that’s what happened to the woman allegedly responsible for half the revenue of HarperCollins: suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere (depending on your point of view), she was unceremoniously dismissed in December 2006, and the ReganBooks imprint immediately dissolved.

Ignorant to the ways of publishing, I thought my book would still be a runaway success. Party Girl was scheduled to come out the following May and the New York Post, New York Daily News, Cosmo and Redbook were all scheduled to cover the book. The Today Show had booked me for an appearance the week of release and CAA was already fielding inquiries for the film rights.

But publicity and buzz, I learned, doesn’t sell books. Publishers sell books. More specifically, publisher support sells books.

I had no publisher support because I had no publisher. ReganBooks no longer existed, so I was put under the William Morrow imprint. Authors talk about being orphaned when their editor leaves for another house; this was like being orphaned and then having the orphanage burned to the ground, leaving chaos in its wake.

The cover decisions were messy. The first cover was, in a word, terrible. No one asked my opinion but luckily the team in charge of things agreed with me because it was abandoned for a less terrible one. But the first, really terrible one was sent out to the press so most of the coverage showed the wrong cover.

In the 14 years since then, I’ve published four more books with Harper, one with Simon & Schuster that became a New York Times bestseller and a few more with indie presses. Through that process, I’ve discovered what a rube I was.

But my true publishing education has occurred since founding my own hybrid publishing company three years ago.

It’s through this process that I’ve truly learned all the things my traditional publishers never told me—things that seem to be key to a book’s success. About, say, getting the author’s opinion on the cover. About advance reader teams. About effective book descriptions. About bulk orders. About keywords and categories. Oh, and speaking of categories, HarperCollins categorized Party Girl on Amazon as “Humorous Science Fiction.” While I’d agree that the book is funny, it’s a novel about a girl getting sober but having to fake being wild; in other words, it is in no way science fiction.

When “Quit Lit” started becoming a “thing” a few years ago, it occurred to me that I could republish the book. Last year, when it began to look like the Party Girl movie, after numerous options, would finally get made, I decided I wanted to republish the book under my own imprint. The book was over a decade old and out of print. It had barely been released. How hard could getting the rights back be?

Turns out, harder than you might think. My lawyer told me that because the book was out of print, the rights had officially reverted back to me but because of how the contract had been written, it would be a lot “cleaner” if I received written confirmation from Harper.

Party Girl by Anna David

And so, in August 2020, he wrote the legal department of Harper a formal request for the reversion of rights, asking for a written response within four months. Four months later, nada.

I got my agent involved. She wrote Harper over and over. And over. Eventually, a woman at Harper named Helen responded that my lawyer’s letter had never been received, despite the fact that it had been sent registered mail. Helen promised they would discuss Party Girl at their next “reversion meeting.” The following month Helen said the decision had been postponed another month.

And then, just when I’d reached the point where I was going to go ahead and republish the book without their permission, I received a letter from Helen telling me that I could have my rights back so long as I didn’t use Harper’s layout or cover. No problem, Helen!

I’m now getting ready to launch my first baby the way I wanted it launched in the first place. I’m sure there will be numerous frustrations, disappointments and annoyances I’ll want to complain about. At least this time I’ll know where I can find the publisher.

Share on:
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments