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Suppose an author created a book "Learning Mandarin", which contained a bunch of readings and assignments in English and Chinese for learning the language. The problem is, they have to work with a special publisher who can publish both in the western markets and in China, so they use a Chinese textbook publisher capable of handling this.

Now suppose the same author took the basic components of that book, recycled the readings, and rebranded it as "Learning French". It resembles the content of the first considerably, but it's for a different audience that the first publisher doesn't even serve.

The author already did much work to consider the pedagogy behind the first book, so the second book will be naturally quite similar. Can this author work with a different publisher for the second book? Or because many components are reused (simply translated Chinese parts to French) does it mean the first publisher has copyright ownership over the second?

Can authors work with a different publisher for a derivative work?

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  • Even if a publisher doesn't serve a specific market, they may be able to partner with another publisher, or have some kind of deal or arrangement to pass work on. So you definitely shouldn't assume that the publisher has no interest in other markets. It's hard to be precise without knowledge of contracts and other specifics.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 5 at 17:04
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    Regarding your bounty, can you clarify what additional information you're seeking? I know that Mary's answer is quite brief, but it also seems fairly straightforward: you need to check the contract you signed with your publisher. What else is there you want to know that her answer doesn't cover?
    – F1Krazy
    Apr 19 at 15:13

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You will be "plagiarizing" some of the text in the first book for the second, you need to ensure (with an agent or lawyer) that you have the right to do this when negotiating the first book contract. You will not necessarily; the publisher may consider such rights non-negotiable. In fiction some publishers demand the rights to any sequels using some or the same characters. They don't want to do the trailblazing and costs of building your first audience, only for you to jump ship with sequels that will be more profitable.

Same thing applies here, one publisher does all the ground breaking of building an audience for your first translation book, only for a second publisher to enjoy the profits from, at least in part, the audience and your popularity as an author that they (the first publisher) paid to create. First books from new authors are typically not that profitable for publishers because audiences are hard to build. They count on you creating a franchise.

Typically, you should find a publisher where that doesn't matter, somebody with worldwide contacts and partners, so they could publish all your books.

Failing that, I'd suggest you try to negotiate an out, giving them a right of first refusal on your subsequent works in this same category (non-fiction language instruction), with you having the rights, if they don't exercise their option within a year, to seek another publisher, reusing the material of your first book (or previous books) in subsequent books. Kind of like "The Dummy's Guide To [fill in the blank]".

So if you write the French version, you submit it to them, they can opt to publish it, but if they don't do that within a year you have the right to do with it what you want.

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It entirely depends on the details of the contract. Certainly a substantial part of the text is repeated, but the contract needs to spell out what rights are involved.

On one hand, non competing products. On the other, publishers are notorious for rights grabs.

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I would think that would depend on the contract with the publisher for Chinese. I would imagine that you could go to another publisher to translate it into French, because that won't affect the market of the Chinese variant. But, like I said, it depends entirely on the first publisher's contract. The more rights you yourself can retain, the better. But check with the first publisher before you do anything.

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