In last week’s fun-filled episode of Contracts 101, we learned that there are different kinds of rights that you can grant for your book. But what does this mean, in practice?
What this really means is that you are going to grant a package of rights to your publisher, who is generally the first entity who is going to give you money for your book. The standard package of rights generally includes the right to publish the book in print and in some electronic format (e-books being a very complicated subject we’ll talk about in another post); the right to sell portions of the book to anthologies or magazines; the right to sell to book clubs; and the right to grant other people the use of small portions of the book for their own purposes (known as “permissions”).
There are also rights that are almost always kept by the author, generally: film/TV and other related dramatic rights (such as stage play and the like), merchandising rights (which are generally necessary to hold on to if you’re keeping film rights, because movie studios will insist on being able to make an action figure of the hero of your precious literary novel), and other assorted WAAAY-out-there wacky rights, such as theme park rights (yep, “theme park rights” are included in several major publisher’s boilerplates, so someone must be giving those suckers away—please don’t be that guy).
Now, the most important question to consider when looking at who you should sell your rights to is which company is best equipped to do the best job with them. Most of the time, the people who are buying rights to your work will try to get the most they can get out of you, regardless of whether or not they have a plan in place to do anything with those rights.
This is less diabolical than it seems, particularly when we live in a world where constantly evolving technology and gadgets mean that new kinds of rights are popping up every day. And what is a publisher to do when—in a possible not-too-distant future—they only have electronic rights but not audio rights, and the industry standard for e-books changes to include a read-aloud feature? That would mean that any book for which the publisher doesn’t have audio rights won’t sell in e-book format, potentially killing all e-book sales for that publisher.
It is with these factors in mind that we look at the group of rights which you and your agent could potentially keep for you, and which you could sell to your publisher—rights that include: most significantly, audio rights; most complicatedly, electronic rights (like e-books that include more interactive elements); first-serial rights (when portions of a book appear in a magazine before the book’s publication—a great publicity tool and a source of income in its own right); and the one most fought over, the right to publish the book in different languages, and/or in English worldwide.
When deciding whether or not to sell these rights to your publisher, you’ll have to keep in mind two important questions:
1) What can the publisher do with these rights versus what you can do with them if you keep them for yourself? For example, if you’re an unagented author, are you REALLY going to be able to find a German publisher on your own, or would it be better to let your publisher’s foreign rights department handle foreign sales? Conversely, if your agent has an established foreign rights department, and you know your book is going to be a hard sell in a foreign market, maybe it would be better to have your agent handle foreign sales, rather than letting your book get lost among the hundreds of books your publisher is going to be trying to sell in the foreign market.
2) If you are giving the publisher these additional rights, are they paying you more for them? If you believe these rights have value (and if your belief is reasonable—please listen to your agent or other professionals who advise you on this point—not all rights actually have value in the open market), make the publisher pay you more money for those rights. If they were going to pay you $10,000 for rights to publish the book in the English language in the United States, ask for $15,000 for the right to publish it in all languages throughout the world. Don’t let them buy something for nothing!
Whew! That was longer than I planned it to be. Next time on Contracts 101, we’ll go into more depth about what, exactly, I’m talking about when I say “first-serial rights.” That’s right, ladies and gents, I’ll be defining my terms, as well as discussing the differences between primary and subsidiary rights. You know you can’t wait.
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.”