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I created a book and used a commercial digital printing house to print and bind some copies, which I gave away as gifts. The book says in it "Copyright 2010, Richard Clunan. Published by Wordfruit." (Wordfruit is the name of my company).

Can I still offer 'first publication rights' to a publisher?

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I think this will depend largely on the terms of the printing house. If it was privately done, e.g. a random person wouldn't be able to buy a copy of your book from the printing service - I don't think it counts as "being published." But I could be way off on this. –  Standback Jul 30 '11 at 21:33
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3 Answers

Once you have published it, regardless of where or how, you will never have the ability to offer "first publication rights" again. And why is that a big deal? For most publishers, if you have already published and didn't sell enough copies to stir up any real interest, then they are not going to waste their money on trying to sell it. You've already demonstrated it won't sell. So what other options do you have?

The first option is to go ahead and shop it anyway. If you feel your book is good enough to become a hit, then give it a try. The publishing houses aren't going to know that you published it and gave away all your copies. If you end up stirring up any interest and it gets to the point where they are willing to discuss contract, then come clean and tell them what you did. If they really liked your book, they are much more likely to agree that your efforts did not constitute a true attempt to sell the book.

The second option is to self-publish as an e-book. Since you already have the book written, all you would have to do is convert it to the proper format and submit it to a distributor. This won't cost you a penny to do, but now you will be responsible for promoting and marketing the book. Not an impossible task, but it can be time consuming.

The thrid option is to self-publish in print through a company like CreateSpace. I suggest them because you can set everything up for free (you do have to pay for a proof copy, but you'll probably want your own copy anyway). If you want to expand your distribution channels to include book stores, it will cost you about $40, but aside from that and the cost of the proof copy, you're not out much money. Again, however, you have to do the promoting and marketing.

Of course, you can always combine options two and three, depending on what you really want to accomplish. If you go with a publishing house, you may spend months shopping it around, then another month or two agreeing on the contract, and then 12-18 months waiting for it to be printed and distributed. If you go with either of the other options, you can make it available within 3-10 days.

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In principle, Steven is right: once your book has been published in any form, you can no longer offer "first publication rights", since you've used those up.

However, you may have an out: simply getting a few copies bound to give away as gifts does not necessarily constitute "publication". It depends entirely on the terms that you agreed to with the printer. If you simply contracted with a commercial printer to have some copies made, then the printer does not retain any rights to the book. This means that all of the rights have remained with you, or technically your company Wordfruit---and I assume that Wordfruit is wholly owned by you, and so doesn't actually represent any competing ownership interest. In this case, since there is no third party that has already claimed "first publication rights", you should still be able to offer those rights for sale.

However, if you find a publisher and sit down to write a contract with them, you'll need to make it clear at that point that you already had a very limited print run. They can probably work out the necessary contract language to cover any legal technicalities.

(Disclaimer: IANA contract lawyer or IP lawyer.)

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Actually, the printer has nothing to do with it. The printer is merely providing a service and is not the publisher. In fact, he had it specifically stated inside the books that his company was the publisher. Since he owns the company, he has essentially self-published the book. –  Steven Drennon Aug 2 '11 at 16:28
    
@Steven, you're correct so long as it was just a commercial printer, as seems to be the case. But there are some "printers" that are actually more like self-publishers and which might have encumbered the rights in some way. –  JSBձոգչ Aug 2 '11 at 17:03
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You might be able to convince a publisher that because you didn't sell the book you haven't created any competition (if it was a very small run, you'll have a stronger argument) and therefore they can still have first publication rights. But considering that getting a publisher to look at your book is a uphill battle anyway, it might be a very tough sell.

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