Your Rights

Publishers are in the rights business, pure and simple. They are printers, sometimes marketers, hopefully good editors, but their business is charged with making money over the long haul. That means they want to control any and all rights to your book to license, sell, adapt, modify, translate…you get the picture. So what should an author know?

Every publishing house is different; that’s why an experienced agent is so essential. Some houses grasp onto a right like it’s their only child (bigger publishers, especially). They’re stubborn and unreasonable and hold all of the cards. Why? Money. They write the checks. If it’s a big check, that entitles the publisher to try to keep whatever they can. Unless an author is willing to walk away from that check, they have little leverage but to play the publisher’s game. Having said that, publishers also have a good amount of experience in selling these rights, and a big machinery to manage the process.

Primary rights that are typically non-negotiable include (and this includes the right to sell anything we grant them to anyone, anywhere, almost at any time):

  • North American (and sometimes World) English language print rights;
    • Any format, style, derivation
    • Book club
  • E-book rights (and enhanced ebook rights);
  • Large print and braille;

These primary rights are often granted because the publisher can ultimately make more money than an agent:

  • In the Christian market, foreign rights. In the general market, if the agent has good contacts overseas or good co-agents in bigger parts of the world (Europe, the Pacific Rim, etc.), there is more money to be made by the author in keeping these rights.
    • Unless the agent can negotiate a larger percentage for his author (60% to 75%). Publishers often have deeper means to keep squirrely foreign publishers accountable (due to doing lots of deals with one house).
    • Like most experienced agencies, our agency has some contacts with foreign editors, but not as many as we’d like.
    • Audio rights are sometimes non-negotiable, as publishers want to control what may compete with them out in the marketplace. But I’ve withheld audio in a few instances and sold these rights myself.
  • For Christian non-fiction especially, curriculum rights are sometimes granted to a publisher, sometimes not. Publishers are rarely putting curriculum packages together for churches, but if it’s a big book (read: big author), or has potential over the long haul to make a mark in retail, they’ll typically want to keep these rights for two or three years just in case it hits.
    • Sometimes reversion can happen after the first year if the author simply wants to produce and fund the creation of some sort of curriculum piece for his/her own sales.
    • Curriculum can also include non-dramatic video. This is even rarer, as it’s insanely expensive to produce.

Other rights:

  • Dramatic and film rights. Oddly, some Christian publishers want to hold onto 20% to 50% of these rights. What used to be automatically retained by the author is now being held onto by the publisher for up to two years, stubbornly by some houses. In New York, there is no question that dramatic rights are retained by the author, but some portions of CBA want a piece of the action. A few publishers, of course, have had some success getting producers to notice bestselling books and then getting them made into film. It’s rare, but it happens. And the money isn’t insignificant if something gets made (overall, anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000, if a book gets made into film).
    • Option Money:  Signing an option agreement to take a book to film (especially for Christian books), is common (5% to 10% of all novels published), but not lucrative. Anywhere from $500 for a one-year option (renewable at $1,000 or $2,000) to perhaps a high-end of $25,000. There are exceptions and lots of variety, depending on the entity optioning the rights. The “option” allows them to start raising money, hiring a script writer, getting a director, and attaching other talent, all with the hopes of presenting it to a studio for the green light of turning on the cameras. In 18 years as an agent, I’ve done a dozen options or so, with one finally being put into film. It’s not our core business, and the money is not large on 98% of the properties. WordServe works with an experienced Hollywood co-agent when a property is close to being optioned.
  • Calendars, magazines (1st and 2ndSerial rights), gift books, anthologies, quotations
    • Small money; typically publishers want to keep these rights.

Do you have any other questions about rights issues you’ve been wondering about?

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This entry was posted in Agent's Desk, Publishing, Writing and tagged , , , by Greg Johnson. Bookmark the permalink.

About Greg Johnson

I’m the president of WordServe Literary in Centennial, Colo. and founder and president of FaithHappenings.com. More importantly, I’m married to Becky, and together we share six adult children, and are grandparents to seven. In previous years, I've been a Campus Life leader (10 years), Breakaway magazine editor (5 years), author or coauthor of 21 books. But for the last 22 years, I've been a literary agent privileged to work with a great family of authors and staff trying to make a dent for the Kingdom.

6 thoughts on “Your Rights

  1. Thanks for this information, Greg. It’s helpful to understand rights a little better. Would you please explain reversion of rights, perhaps in another post? I’m still a little foggy on that part of a contract.

  2. Great post Greg. For those of us newer to contract negotiations, your insights are practical, helpful, and downright comforting.

    I’m so grateful for the work you, Barbara, and other agents do for we clients who need you so much. You are appreciated!

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