Many authors are mystified by – and sometimes afraid of – the seemingly arcane world of rights. Interestingly, as internet books sales have boomed and the RRP is merely a guide to how much the book will cost, many readers also feel frustrated by their lack of understanding of rights and sometimes ask if authors are getting a good deal. In this post Lynette Owen, editor of Clark’s Publishing Agreements, explains what rights are and how they should be used.
In the world of publishing, rights – sometimes referred to as subsidiary rights – can be something of a mystery to authors (and indeed to some staff working in other areas in publishing houses). Rights are ways of exploiting the intellectual property in a literary work by licensing the content – perhaps to be published in an overseas market, published in translation, or used as the basis for a stage, television or film adaptation. These rights normally belong in the first place to the author (and perhaps also to the illustrator where relevant) who may then choose to specify that all or some categories of rights are handled by their literary agent or their publishing house. The share of revenue paid to the author from licensing arrangements will be specified in the contract between author and publisher; for deals handled by a literary agent, an agreed rate of commission will be paid to the agent.
As General Editor of Clark’s Publishing Agreements: A Book of Precedents (11/e, Bloomsbury Professional, January 2022), I receive mixed feedback on how the contractual precedents are used. Many small publishers use the downloadable templates verbatim, whilst larger publishers may want to tailor the wording to reflect company practice in terms of royalty models, warranties and indemnities, accounting dates etc. Some publishers incorporate selected wording from the Clark templates into their own contracts.
How an author chooses to grant control of rights in their work will depend on individual circumstances. If represented by an agent, the agency may make separate publication arrangements for separate markets, e.g. the UK and Commonwealth with a British publisher and separate arrangements with a US publisher. The agency may have specialist departments to handle translation rights or film and television rights, so those categories would be withheld from the English language publishing house/s. If no agent is involved, much will depend on the geographical territories granted to the publisher and the resources of the publishing house to exploit rights, something authors should discuss before contracting. These days, many larger publishers will expect e-book and audiobook rights to be included as part of their primary publishing rights. If some categories of rights are withheld from the publisher, authors do need to consider carefully whether they have the time and expertise to handle rights negotiations and contractual and accounting arrangements themselves.
The role of a literary agent is to act in the best interests of the authors they represent; however, not all authors are represented by an agent and it is rare for agents to operate in the areas of educational, academic and professional books, where contracts tend to be directly between author and publisher. If authors are concerned about the fairness of some elements in the publisher’s contract, they should first clarify any points with their editorial contact in the publishing house, who should be able to explain the reasons behind the contractual requirements. It is also worth noting that the Society of Authors can offer advice to member authors, although they probably do so more frequently for trade (general) authors than for educational and academic authors whose contracts usually differ from trade contracts to reflect different market conditions. Any formal legal advice on a publishing contract should be sought from a firm specialising in intellectual property matters.
I first joined the publishing industry immediately after graduating from London University, starting work in the London office of Cambridge University Press, and came to work in their rights department almost by accident – rights work was little known as a career path back then. In 1973, I moved to set up a rights department at Pitman Publishing, then spent a year at trade publisher Marshall Cavendish before joining the multinational publisher Longman Group Ltd (now Pearson Education), latterly as Copyright Director. I was fortunate to be able to travel extensively to sell rights, both at international book fairs but also on sales trips and publishing delegations – educational and academic publishers were early entrants to challenging markets such as the former Soviet Union, central and eastern Europe and mainland China. Space here precludes recounting many strange experiences in those markets, some of which I covered in my recordings for the British Museum Book Trade Lives project! Since 2013, I have worked as a freelance copyright and rights consultant, providing advice on rights and contracts to smaller publishers and also running training courses for publishers and degree students on rights in the UK and abroad. In addition to my work on Clark’s Publishing Agreements, I am also the author of Selling Rights, now in its eighth edition (Routledge, 2019) – as far as I am aware, the only book on the subject.
I think the most attractive aspect of working in rights is the opportunity to meet a wide range of publishers from all over the world and build up long-term relationships with them; a great deal of rights business hinges on personal relationships. It is also challenging and hugely rewarding to negotiate rights deals on behalf of authors and to tie up those deals in legally sound licence contracts, fair to both parties. By contrast, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of rights is that senior management in some (but not all!) publishing companies still do not recognise the value of the rights function, both in terms of generating revenue for authors and publishers but also in terms of the PR value derived from broadening access to publications through licensing.
My rights-related tips to authors would be:
- If you have a literary agent, talk to them about rights possibilities and be prepared to assist with promoting rights if required.
- If you work directly with a publisher, find out how they handle rights and make contact with their rights staff.
- But do try to be realistic in your expectations for rights deals – not every book is a candidate for the silver screen!
For publishers, my tips would be:
- Time and effort expended on the promotion and sale of rights will produce results, even for smaller publishers with limited resources, and will enhance expertise.
- Rights selling depends on building long-term relationships with compatible publishing partners – these take time to establish.
- To publishing management – recognise the importance of a rights operation, both in terms of revenue and PR value to author and publishing house alike.
© Lynette Owen
In tomorrow’s post, Hannah Deuce, Marketing and PR Manager for Bloodhound Books, describes how she works with authors.
3 thoughts on “Fight for your rights and be free!”
A fascinating article. It was some years ago now, but I was briefly involved in the potential sale of rights to foreign language publishers and was concerned because I knew so little about what was going on. My publisher at the time was handling it. I’m glad it never materialised because I’d probably still be stuck with it today even though I now have the English language rights to my book back.
It’s really helpful to see this from your author perspective, Val. It’s still a dark art!
It sounds it 🙂