Publishing agreements typically provide for a term equal to “the full term of copyright and all renewals and extensions” in the work.  However, despite this language, other provisions in the agreement usually allow for earlier termination if the work goes “out of print.” “Out of print” is generally defined as meaning that the work is “no longer available for sale from the publisher.”  Also, a recent trend has been to give the author an option to terminate if sales fall below a specified number of copies for a defined period of time – for example, if total sales in all formats are less than 200 copies per period for any two consecutive accounting periods.

Regardless of what the publishing agreement may provide, there has been an increasing interest on the part of many authors in terminating their agreements.  This is perhaps due in part to the growth of self-publishing services, which may appear to offer authors a seamless transition from publication by a publisher to publication by the author, with a greater share of profits going to the author.  However, before proceeding with termination of a publishing agreement, there are several points which an author should consider:

  1. First and foremost, does the author have the right to terminate the agreement? As noted above, many agreements can be terminated only if the work is no longer in print. Even if the agreement has a minimum sales provision, the author will need to determine that sales have fallen below the minimum level for the number of reporting periods specified before attempting to initiate a termination.


  1. If the author does not have the right to terminate the agreement but still wishes to do so, will it be possible to work out a deal with the publisher? In some cases, this may involve an offer to purchase the publisher’s remaining print inventory.


  1. Why does the author want to terminate the agreement? One of the reasons most frequently cited is that sales are too low.  However, the author needs to ask why this is the case.  If the book has been in the market for several years and is near the end of its life cycle, or if the book is on a topic that is not of interest to most readers, or if (horrors!) the book is just not that good, then it is unlikely that the author will realize substantially different results by publishing the book himself or herself (and it is even less likely that the author will be able to interest another publisher in publishing the book).


  1. How much of the book consists of material not owned by the author? Many books, and in particular, many nonfiction books, include cover art, illustrations, editorial notes, an index, an introduction and other elements which were prepared or commissioned by the publisher.  Also, the publisher may have secured permission from third party sources such as Corbis or Getty Images for photographs included in the book or may have secured releases from persons named in the book.  In most cases, the right to use these materials will remain with the publisher and will not transfer to the author upon the termination of the publishing agreement.  Thus the author will have to pay to have new materials created for the book and will have to obtain separate permissions and releases for any third party materials or other property included in the work or leave that material or property out of the author’s edition.  The cost of having new material prepared or of re-obtaining permissions may be prohibitive, and removing key material from the book may not be feasible either.

In some situations it may be appropriate for an author to terminate his or her publishing agreement, but an author should always answer the above questions before doing so.