When Is an Old Story a New Story?

Most novelists who have been writing for a while have an unpublished story or two that they haven’t given up on. You keep thinking that if you could just find the right twist or revise a character you can make it marketable. But how much do you have to change the manuscript to consider it a new story? Can you send a revised novel with a new name to the same editors and agents as though it were something fresh for them to read?

Or what about his scenario? You write a great sci-fi story called Death March into Armageddon. Publishers seem to like it, but no one offers you a contract. A few years later, you publish the story with a small press that goes out of business shortly after. Your novel only sells a few dozen copies. Five years later, you get a great idea for how to make the story better. You make those changes, spruce it up with a new name like Heavenly Invasion and submit it to a different publisher.

Can you consider this work to be “previously unpublished”? Is there a legal definition for how much a story has to change to be considered a new work? Do you have a moral or legal obligation to tell the new publisher about the manuscript’s history and the two dozen copies of the previous version that are still out there somewhere?

Has anyone been in this situation? How did you handle it?

9 Comments
  1. I agree with those here. Get out your contract and look at the rights section. Get back your rights if you can. Then if you decide to go ahead and re-publish, disclose to your new publisher and make your changes.

  2. Thanks, everyone, for your input. I do have the rights to the story (which is not named Heavenly Invasion), so that isn’t the issue. It’s really about disclosure and how much is necessary. And C.D., you’re right, marketing departments do it all the time. And they often don’t bother to mention that it’s previously published under a different name. I’ve heard readers complain about this.

  3. Solve a lot of your problems by requesting and getting back your rights. First rights should be looked into to see if you even have to do that. I’ve gotten my rights back on all of my books that have gone out of print for several reasons. Mostly, I like to be in charge of what happens to my work. It was and is mine. As for telling a new publisher, always do that, no matter what.

  4. So…what if I had a short story that was published and I wanted to expand it into a novel? Would that also be a legal issue as far as checking with the publisher of the anthology?

  5. Yes, you must tell the new publisher about your orphaned book. It happened to me several times and the new publisher requested that I change the characters’ names and book title. I felt a little apprehensive about it but was told that it happens all the time.

  6. Never been in that sitch but an interesting topic. I appreciate the other commenters and their take on it. I would think that while it may have been previously pub’d you could still make it well advertised/received as “revised” “expanded” or whatever so the new pub house would be more attracted to contracting for its new release.

  7. By chance are you referring to this story where a book consisting of three previously published novels is a candidate for the National Book Award?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/12/books/12matthiessen.html

    Then there’s Stephen King with some novellas being republished as stand alone books when they were published in magazines and collections, or old books coming out in extended version.

    I guess it’s a mortal sin when the writer does it, but okay for the marketing department.

  8. If it has been published you must tell.
    By the time you revise a story that you’ve let sit, the same editors don’t work for the same houses.
    They might actually have a place for the ms or the trend has changed and yours now fits.
    But I think it needs to be a pretty major overhaul.

  9. If the story has been published, you have a professional and possibly legal obligation to tell the new publisher. The professional part is that you don’t want him out there excited about flogging your story only to be told by a junior reader that they remember that same story from a Midwest Collegiate Writers anthology. The legal part has to do with the rights you proffered to the first publisher. The story may not legally be yours to re-submit. Either way, you certainly don’t want to piss off a credible publisher. It’s a small community.

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