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In the early days of my publishing career, I worked as an editor for a publisher based in Ireland. While it started as primarily a digital-first romance house, it quickly grew into a multi-genre powerhouse.

During that time, two of my titles were accepted by the publisher. The first was a little military thriller called Stray Ally, a story about a not-so-great guy who meets a dog in the wilderness after being targeted for an unknown reason and saves the dog’s life. As often happens with man’s best friend, the dog, in turn, saves the man. It was a fun little novel that started as a NaNoWriMo project and became a bestseller in the UK and the U.S. It was released digitally first and sold enough copies that the publisher put it out in print.

Fast forward five-ish years after its debut, and it was time to either renew the contract or take my publishing rights back. I chose the latter. I’d moved into mostly self-publishing by then, and it seemed like a no-brainer to give this “old” story new life under my own brand (and keep more of the profits).

A matter of days later, I had the manuscript and cover files (unheard of, I know) in my email inbox. Then I asked myself, “Now what?” I had some decisions to make.

Treating this book like a new project
First, I knew I needed new ISBNs. The Irish publisher was no longer the publisher of record, so that was a given. In this case, I needed an ISBN for the digital and print formats: Kindle Unlimited was a thing, but I didn’t want to go the narrow route at first. Readers were already used to this book being available everywhere.

Second, I had to determine if I needed to refile for copyright. Part of this decision came down to two things:

  • The book was copyrighted under my name. I only licensed the rights to a publisher for five years. So, the copyright was still mine. However …
  • If I was going to re-edit the book (Why not?) and if I made significant changes, did I need to file again? Well, that depended on how big or small those changes were.

Ultimately, I decided I would not need to refile the copyright. The changes I made in the manuscript were minor, as the original edits were still good, and I had no desire to rewrite the story.

Refiling copyright might make sense depending on the changes you make and even your personal preference. If you have questions, consult a local copyright attorney. The minor fee of their consultation will be worth it for your peace of mind.

Bradlee Frazer, a copyright attorney in Boise, where I live, told me: “Once a work is copyrighted, that copyright is forever [at least as far as the author is concerned]. But if you make substantive changes, someone could argue that your new work differs from the one you originally registered.”

This is an unlikely scenario, and you’d likely win any such suit anyway, but it never hurts to have the strongest legal protection you can.

I wanted to change the interior formatting and update it. Technology had improved, and that choice only made sense. Besides, it was easy; I was getting a new cover anyway, so if the page count changed, it would not matter.

In the end, I treated the manuscript almost like a new project. I got a new ISBN, cover, and formatting and had a proofreader look it over one final time. The copyright and the title were the only things that did not change.

Your choice can also depend on why you got your rights back. In the age when publishers and imprints come and go, in some cases you get everything back because your publisher no longer exists. Sometimes, you don’t even get your original, finally edited manuscript files back, so if you have not saved them yourself somewhere, you may have to recreate them somehow, have your work edited, and get a new cover no matter what.

In others, you’ll get formatted files, your cover (and the rights to it), and all the necessary information. In that case, an argument can be made for re-releasing with a new ISBN and moving on.

“I got new covers and ISBNs,” C. J. Anaya told me. “That [made it easy] to publish my books under my own KDP account.” Just because we made similar choices doesn’t mean they were right. They were simply “the right ones for me at the time,” Anaya said.

But another decision is hidden in the paragraphs above: to keep the title or change it.

To re-title or not re-title
Another decision you will have to make is whether or not to re-title your work or keep the same title. There are pros and cons to each approach.

Pros of keeping the same title:

  • The book is known by the existing title already.
  • You don’t have to make changes to the title page and other parts of the interior.
  • It’s easier to get Amazon reviews transferred (sort of).

Cons of keeping the same title:

  • The book is known by the existing title, and that may cause confusion when you re-release.
  • You’ll have to get the publisher to stop sales of your book online, and even if they remove it right away, that can take time.
  • If other similar titles exist that did not before, especially in your genre, this can also cause some confusion.

In other words, you’ll have to look around and decide based on what you want and what you discover about the market. Also, consider that your once benign title might be offensive now.

What about the pros of changing titles?

  • Well, you will be getting a new cover, ISBN, and likely formatting, so there is really no additional cost.
  • You’ll avoid any confusion with the old title.
  • You start with a fresh slate with reviews, rankings, etc.

The cons sound a lot like the pros:

  • You’ll have to get new covers and formatting whether you want to or not.
  • You’ll create a new title, and existing readers might pick it up only to realize they’ve already read this story.
  • You’ll be starting over with reviews and rankings, which, if the book was doing well, can be a downside.

In my situation, I decided that a new title was not necessary. I really liked the original one, and it still worked well in that genre (it still does) even years later.

“I chose to keep the same titles,” Anaya said. “That way just made more sense to me.”

“I kept everything the same,” said Vincent Zandri, a popular thriller author who has gone through this process with multiple titles. “It saved me time and money and seemed to be the fastest way to get these titles back to market.”

“I saw getting my rights back as a chance for a fresh start,” said S.L. Kotar. “I changed the titles, edits, and even the ending of a few of the books.” She even republished the books under a new pen name. “It was exciting and had a huge impact on sales.”

What should you do?
So what do you need to do? It depends on what you want from the books you’ve gotten the rights back to and your situation. The short summary is that most authors I talked to at least get new ISBNs, but only a few filed for new copyrights.

Regarding covers, editing, and formatting, the answers were mixed and varied by author and circumstance. It’s a decision only you can make.

But if you have any questions, ask an attorney, your peers, or others in your writing community. Try to talk to those in your genre who have had success republishing books they’ve gotten the rights to.

Depending on how long ago the book was accepted and published, the market might have changed significantly. So, getting advice is never a bad thing.

But primarily, follow your instincts. The beauty of self-publishing is that you have control over your career. And even if you do something that doesn’t work out, you can always pivot and try again.


Author photo

Troy Lambert is an author, editor, freelance writer, and the education lead for Plottr. He’s written over two dozen novels, loads of short stories and novellas, and spoken at writers’ conferences all around the country. He lives, works, and plays in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and two very talented dogs. This article appeared in the March 2024 edition of Nink.

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