Q&A: Rights

Q.  What rights should I grant to my publisher?

The standard book publishing agreement “Grant of Rights” clause commonly takes all “print” rights plus certain specified “subsidiary” rights – foreign, translation, book club, electronic, film & television, audio, dramatic, and periodical.  Don’t skim over these clauses — they are the most important elements of your publishing agreement.  Examine them closely, and, if necessary, consult a publishing lawyer or literary agent.

Unless there is a specific reason not to do so, you always should try to retain as many subsidiary rights as you can, keeping in mind that certain rights are considered “non-negotiable” by publishers  –  typically, audio, electronic, and book club.  On the other hand, even first novelists should be able to retain either film/television, or foreign/translation, or both.  Film/television rights, of course, allow your book to be made into a movie or television show.  These are rights I always advise authors to keep for themselves. They can be worth a sizeable chunk of money, and under the typical publisher subsidiary rights clause, if the publisher makes the sale, the proceeds of the sale are split 50/50 between you and the publisher.  Further, under a typical literary agency agreement, you also will owe your agent 15% of your 50%!  Finally, if the publisher controls the rights, it makes all the decisions; you don’t get to negotiate the terms.

On the other hand, if you retain film & television rights, and a movie studio or producer makes an offer, you or your agent get to negotiate the deal, and you don’t owe the publisher any money.

Foreign publication rights give the publisher the right to license your book to foreign publishers (“foreign” being defined by the “Territory” in the agreement). Translation rights give the publisher the right to have the book translated into other languages.  Should you give these rights to the publisher?  Some publishers do aggressively pitch their books to foreign publishers, so they may be in a position to make more sales than you or your agent could.  In that case, it’s not bad to split the money—they do the work, and you just collect extra checks.  If you don’t have an agent, though, you have to do the legwork and contact foreign agents or foreign publishers yourself.  In some cases, the publishers will come to you: if your book does very well in the United States, chances are “scouts” will be watching to offer you a deal to print the book abroad (in English or translated into other languages).

The main problem is that it’s hard to determine how aggressive your publisher may be with exploiting foreign rights. The secondary problem is that if you let the publisher keep foreign rights, they’re the ones who get to negotiate and determine the deals, and you have to agree to them. They could agree to sell French rights to your book for $100, and you couldn’t turn it down.

Bottom line: make sure you understand the rights you are giving your publisher, and don’t be afraid to negotiate.

© 2009 Daniel Steven