Pretty much every book on writing urges writers NOT to sign away their copyright in a project. And I would agree that, in 99.99% of cases, that is definitely the right step to take.
However, there are times when doing the unthinkable can work out useful.
One example is my work for the Bluffer’s Guides. These are a series of books written in a distinct style and format. Originally, they were published by Oval Books, who paid a decent fee for acquiring the copyright in the text. I wrote the Bluffer’s Guide to Hiking and co-wrote the Bluffer’s Guide to Banking for them.
A few years later, Oval Books sold the Bluffers series to another company. Because the original publisher owned the copyright, they transferred this to the new owner, who could do what they liked with the text.
They chose to lengthen some of the existing books, and commission more books. They invited me to extend the Bluffer’s Guide to Hiking, for which I was paid an appropriate fee, and they also commissioned me to write the Bluffer’s Guide to Dogs, which (of course) they paid for (paying an appropriate fee for the copyright).
A few more years further down the line and, once again, the Bluffers series has been sold to another publisher … who want to put their own stamp on things. I’m delighted to learn that they’re republishing the Bluffer’s Guide to Dogs and would like to republish The Bluffer’s Guide to Hiking … subject to some updating and expanding it further … for which there will be another fee, if they want me to do it for them (and I hope they do).
Looking back, I can remember the emotional turmoil I went through when considering my first contract with Oval Books, questioning whether I was doing the right thing by assigning copyright. (And yes, I did consult the Society of Authors on the matter, making full use of their free contract-vetting service for members.)
In hindsight, I’m of the opinion that assigning copyright in these particular projects has worked well for me … so far. There are a few areas of publishing where assigning copyright is necessary, such as when a book is produced by a series of writers (like a compendium, or encyclopaedia) and paying a royalty is unpractical.
So if you get offered a publishing contract, whether it be for an article or non-fiction book, and are asked to assign the copyright, in 99.99% of cases this would be a bad decision. But don’t dismiss the offer out of hand straightaway. As I’ve discovered in my writing journey, there is a 0.01% chance of it being potentially useful.
(Footnote: please bear in mind that in essence I’m referring to non-fiction here. I would never assign copyright in a piece of fiction, no matter how short. Some of the top-grossing feature films in the last couple of decades have been developed from short stories, and you’d really regret selling your copyright in those circumstances!)