How do you have the rights for your own books? Did you do the original contracts with the publisher so that you retained the rights or they reverted? Or did you do a distribution-only deal? Or maybe buy them back after a certain amount of time? All the books I've done for one publisher were traditional publisher-owned and royalties.
Mmm, let’s take this one bit at a time.
Assuming you’re talking about an original work by you, in your own universe, and not something licensed:
You own the copyright. In such circumstances, your book is not “publisher-owned.” They have purchased (or let’s say “leased”) the rights from you to publish the book, in various forms, until the terms of the contract run out. The only exception to this rule is when you don’t own the copyright – when you’re doing something in someone else’s universe. (See “Work for hire” below.)
Now when you own the copyright in a work, you set up with the publisher, at the contract stage, exactly what rights you’re going to allow them to have. (Or else you later mutually emend an existing contract to take into account new ways to handle new situations, such as ebooks.)
The contract lays out what specific rights of publication the publisher is paying you your advance for – what regions and what forms of publication – and it’s assumed that those rights are theirs until the contract terminates, usually with the book going out of print and/or reverting. (It all depends on the contract. Also, different publishers and different regions revert in different ways. In the US reversion normally has to be specifically requested, and normally you can’t do this while the book is in print. In the UK it operates a little differently: reversion is assumed to have happened a while after a book falls out of print. Not sure of the timing… it’s been a while since this last happened to me.)
The contract negotiations are therefore a bit of a see-saw game, with each side trying to get or keep as much power over rights as it can, while still keeping the other side interested in participating. This is where having a good agent pays off, because there are endless rookie mistakes that an overeager self-negotiating writer can easily make that can be really bad for them down the road. The agent will say to the publisher things like, “You can have North American and UK print rights (or UK and Australia/New Zealand, or fill in the blank…) but we keep everything else.” Then that leaves you (or your agent’s foreign rights department) free to do your own deals elsewhere. (Rule 1: Never sell world rights to anything. Never, never, never, NEVER. This is what got under my skin about that Amtrak thing last year.) Or the agent can say to the publisher: “You can have audio rights but we’re keeping rights to film and graphic representations.” …Or one of a thousand other tweaks to whatever template contract you’ve been offered. (Rule 2: Never accept a template contract without having it looked over by a professional. These days in particular, first-time-out contracts are much more grabby in terms of rights than they used to be in the ancient day when I first broke into print and dinosaurs walked the Earth.)
At the end of the day, though, what rights you manage to keep in your contract will be a function of how much the publisher wants you and how much you want them. There is endless room for give and take in all kinds of areas, and no two contracts will be exactly alike – or should be – any more than any two writers are exactly alike. Some have more pull, some have less; some publishers are willing to give up more to get a given writer than they will give up for another one. Such is life.
…Now. If you are doing licensed work in someone else’s universe, then the situation is rather different. They own the copyright, not you, and so in all the most important ways they will be calling the shots. The only way you get to work in such a universe is by signing a contract that commits you to “work for hire” in one mode or another: you essentially become an employee working in someone’s (virtual) office, and you no more acquire ownership by doing that work than you acquire ownership in their office building. Normally your agent will attempt to compensate for you doing work in which you don’t have copyright by getting you the biggest advance possible, and (ideally) by getting you some royalties… something increasingly rare these days in work-for-hire land. But be qute clear: there is no shame in doing work for hire, any more than there is in writing for TV (and the two are very alike in many ways). If you want to do it, you find out how to get the most out of the situation, and then you go for it. Because in this business, if you don’t go where your heart takes you, you won’t go anywhere much. In my opinion.
…Anyone interested in this general topic in terms of how it can/will affect their own work will need to do a ton of research, as the field is in constant flux around us: but I strongly recommend going over to Kristine Katherine Rusch’s website and reading everything on it about contracts. Kris may not be a lawyer, but her experience on this subject as it affects writers in the here and now, especially independents, is damn nigh encyclopedic.
Hope this helps.