The below is the first in a series I’m calling “Contracts 101,” a very basic introduction to the legal issues faced by authors as they navigate their way through the world of a book deal. As this is very, very boring stuff, I’m going to break it all down into easily digestible pieces. And because I just want to make sure as we go along (for those of you following along at home) that I don’t end up assuming that you know what I’m talking about, I’m going to start at the very, very beginning—so apologies if some of it contains a bit of a “duh” factor. But from basics come knowledge, or some such nonsense. So here we go!
A Book Is More Than a Book
So you’ve written a book and lo, a literary agent has actually told you it is good, and now you’re hoping that someone is going to pay you some money for it. But what are they actually going to pay for, and who is going to pay for it?
When you write a book, you’ve written a collection of ideas that exist on two levels: the first, the very literal actual words on the page, and the second (and more elusive) ideas behind the words on the page. This is easiest to understand when you’re talking about fiction—you have the words you used to tell the story, and you have the story itself—but the same concept applies to nonfiction as well. And as the creator of those words and ideas, you are the owner of all of it. This is your intellectual property.
On the first day of Property class in law school, professors often use a clichéd but effective metaphor to help lawyer wannabes understand the basic principle of property ownership: property rights are a bundle of sticks that the owner possesses, and which can be given away piece by piece, or all at once. Intellectual property rights work the same way—there are lots of different rights you can have in intellectual property, and you can keep some and give others away, and it is important to understand exactly what you are granting whenever you sign a contract.
There are lots and lots of rights involved with a book: there is the right to publish a book in traditional book form, in audio form, in electronic form; there is the question of whether the book can be distributed in the United States only or Worldwide; there is the question of whether any/all of the above can be produced in different languages. And that’s just the way you handle the text—the words-on-the-page part of your rights. There is also the “ideas behind the text” part—this is where your film/TV rights, merchandising rights, graphic novel rights, and even theme park rights come in. And all of these rights are potentially in play whenever you’re selling your book to someone, and you and your agent can negotiate whether or not you should grant those rights to whoever is paying you money to publish your book. All of which means that your one book can have one, five, or fifty different contracts over its lifetime, for different rights in different formats in different parts of the world. So don’t sell yourself short by just signing over everything to the first person who asks!
Next time on Contracts 101: Which rights should you keep, which rights should you give away, and which should you get in a shouting match over (and why) in your everyday book deal.
Disclaimer: The above is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal and/or financial advice in any way. For advice specific to your own legal, financial, or other professional matters, please contact a licensed professional in those areas. In other words: “I ain’t your lawyer, so don’t sue me.”