Q. I've got a problem. A couple of years ago, I signed a contract with Mulch Press for them to publish my first mystery novel. For all practical purposes, they went out of business six months ago. They aren't taking submissions, no one's answering their phone or e-mail, and you can't buy copies of their books. The only sign of life is a rudimentary page that went up on their site after they folded. It says that Mulch Press is still in business.

This is ridiculous. There's an agent who's interested in my mystery series, but that first novel sets the whole thing up, so it needs to be part of the package if we're going to sell the series to a publisher. How do I get my book back from Mulch Press?


A. Dig out your copy of the contract. You're looking for a thing called a reversion clause. In a standard contract, the reversion clause says that if your book goes out of print -- i.e., if copies are unavailable for sale -- you can have your book back. All you have to do is ask. If your contract specified that the license to publish the book was for a specified period of time rather than until the book went out of print, the reversion clause will reflect that agreement.

Never sign a contract that doesn't revert your rights if the publisher goes out of business or stops selling the book.

If you're selling the book to a packager who's selling the book to the publisher, your contract should also specify that if the packager goes out of business or ceases to do what he's supposed to do, you can either collect royalty payments directly or get your book back, depending on how it's selling.

Q. Great. I wish I'd known that when I signed the contract. Trouble is, there's no reversion clause in my contract and I can't get hold of anyone from Mulch Press. Is there any other way to get my book back?

A. No.

Q. You're kidding.

A. I just wish I were.

Here's a weird approach to the problem: some years back, a blogger proposed that in cases like this, authors should change their names, change the book's title, change the chapter titles, rewrite the frontmatter and backmatter, and go through the book changing all the proper names and place names. The idea was that if your former publisher can't recognize the book, they're not going to sue you for reselling it to another company. This is not an officially approved theory, but it might work.

Q. Not in my case. My books are political thriller/mystery novels about a forensic entomologist who lives on Capitol Hill and solves mysteries that usually involve some branch of the national government. You really can't disguise them.

A. Good luck tracking down the people who ran Mulch Press, then. They're your only hope.