FAQ – Rights
I have heard that it is important to keep control of as many rights in my book as possible. Which rights are the most important?
First, the technical part. Book rights fall into two categories: those where rights are sold in book form in the English language ('volume rights') and those where the text is exploited in a different form and/or language ('subsidiary rights'). Volume rights include bookclub sales while subsidiary rights include serialisation/extract, US and translation rights.
Traditionally, publishers retain volume rights, as they are seen as part of the UK book market – a bookclub deal, for example, helps a publisher assess the size of their print-run. The question of which party controls the various subsidiary rights is then the subject of negotiation between publisher and agent.
Rather than get bogged down by ideological stances as to who should control the right in question,
the guiding principle is which party can exploit a right most effectively for the benefit of the author. Clark's Publishing Agreements puts its this way:
'One overall effect of a good publishing contract should be to place rights in the hands of those best able to exploit them in the interests both of the wide availability of
the work and also of income for the author and to those who work for the author, for example the publisher or literary agent. It follows that the publisher or literary agent who asks in his/her contract for control of certain rights, for example, film rights, has a responsibility towards the
author to carry the professional skills needed to exploit the rights and be active in doing so.'
For example, most authors will not have the contacts necessary to exploit US or foreign rights so it makes sense for the publisher or agent to deal with these. Agents often insist on controlling foreign rights on behalf of their authors as a matter of course. However, this is really a matter of which party is best positioned to exploit these rights.
For example, does selling a right in your book mean including a five-line summary on a rights list and submitting through an intermediary or does it mean pitching direct to the publisher? As always, it is important to take each case on its merits.
In cases of dispute Clark's Publishing Agreements suggests: 'a pragmatic solution is to grant the rights in dispute to the publisher providing they exploit them by a specific time.'
It is beyond the scope of this FAQ to cover every rights scenario but here are a few pragmatic suggestions:
- Licence your rights for a limited timescale, so that if your publisher or agent fails to sell them, you can get them back. No publisher or agent confident of their ability should balk at this.
- Be realistic about your book's rights potential – not all UK books will work in foreign markets, for example.
- Develop antennae for bookclub and newspaper serialisation/extract markets, so you are able feed informed suggestions to your publisher/agent.