I have a friend who was published through a small publisher. Not a New York imprint, but an actual, out-in-the-boonies small publisher.
The reason I say “was” and not “is”, is that this small publisher suddenly lost several authors and artists, all at the same time, is facing tax fraud allegations in multiple countries, stands accused of skimming profits from authors, and has had criminal charges filed against her in her state of residence.
My friend is not one of the authors who walked. His first instinct was to sit tight and just wait for the rights to his books revert to him.
That, by the way, is a terrible idea, and I’ve already advised him to talk to an intellectual property lawyer about filing a cross-complaint to get the rights back as soon as possible, given that the publisher will obviously not be able to fulfill the terms of her side of their contract.
And the reason I advised this was made clear when another writer joined in with a bit of his experience. He had works with a publisher who was facing a trial, and the publisher knew he would lose. After failing to “sell” the rights back to the author, they were sold to a holding company, which then changed owners seven times in six months. As he put it: “They effectively made the properties nuclear waste that is sitting on a list somewhere in title/name only.”
Does he still hold the copyright? Technically, but only technically.
This is a common story these days, and not a surprise with the copyright law the way it is. But let us not dwell on that for now. Let us, instead, look at how my friend might have avoided this hassle and expense with Creative Commons licensing, specifically a Free Culture license.
If you decide to go with a publisher, rather than publishing yourself through Amazon, you can still insist that your work go out with a CC license. The publisher will fight it, naturally, as it makes available to anyone rights that are generally the purview of the publisher exclusively.
So, perhaps, you will have to take a smaller advance, or give other concessions, to get that license included in the book.
But imagine you get it. Your novel gets published by Small House Publications, Inc. And it goes out with “Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License 4.0” on the copyright page.
Now imagine that the publisher gets arrested for fraud six months later, and decides to hold all the copyrights of all his authors hostage, either to improve his negotiating position, or to squeeze a little money from his clients when he can’t get any from any other source, or even simply to screw with people because he’s getting screwed with himself. Happens all the time.
But you don’t need to worry.
Because you can put out your own edition of your book immediately. Without asking permission from anyone.
The only restriction you have is that you have to put it out under the same license, of course (that’s what “share alike” means), but you’ve already done that.
You’ll also probably have to mock up a new cover, since the license almost certainly won’t apply to the one the publisher put on his edition of your book.
And if you really want to twit him, you can even release yours as “the only author-approved edition”, which it will be, since you and the publisher will at that point be at loggerheads.
This is one of the great advantages of free culture for artists. No longer do the products of your mind need to be signed away to corporate suits to be held hostage whenever there’s a regime change or the CEO decides he doesn’t like your tone of voice.
The era of Buddy Holly having to beg for permission to record his own music is over, if you want it to be.
You can do business with the big five publishers or the record companies, if you want. But if you require your work to go out with free culture licenses, you are no longer owned by them. They can try their manipulations and abusive tactics, and you can just walk, use all your material again, and let them keep their editions of it hostage if they want, or release them once they realize that won’t hold you any more.
Free culture doesn’t just benefit consumers of culture, it’s a boon to creators as well.