know-your-rightsA recent pair of posts in The Bookseller highlight the scramble for global and subsidiary rights among publishers and agents – a scrum in which authors are in danger of being trampled. As individual authors and advocacy groups like the UK Society of Authors have protested time and time again, it’s exploitation of such rights that is pushing major publisher revenues higher and higher – while author incomes lag ever further behind.

In a post entitled “Wrongs of rights,” Clare Alexander, a director of literary agency Aitken Alexander, declares that: “A key issue for us at the moment is the pressure by big global corporate publishers (and the occasional less big publisher) to try to acquire world rights or to enforce global publication dates or generally to behave as though the world is flat.” This leads her to “the vexed issue of publishers attempting to buy global rights.” And in her opinion, “where publishers are gambling on selling the rights themselves, few of them actually have the necessary skills in their rights departments any more. Even where they do, does one global behemoth actually want to acquire rights from another?”

In reply to this, Jason Bartholomew, rights director for Hodder & Stoughton, Headline, John Murray Press, and Quercus, argues “The case for publisher subrights teams.” He asserts that, “like agencies, my rights team travels regularly throughout the year to book fairs and foreign countries. We wine and dine and chat regularly to the scouts and foreign editors; just as well as the next team does. We speak several languages, we are adept in contract negotiation, and we have over 20 years of experience in deals. In the recent past, my team has taken pride in selling a plethora of titles across all genres to dozens of territories.”

Bartholomew uses the word “author” precisely once in his post. Alexander doesn’t use the word at all. Neither use the word “writer” even once. Would one be wrong to assume that this shows their priorities, at least in this context?

That’s definitely the contention of the Society of Authors, as articulated in its call this summer for CREATOR contracts in the UK that formalize coverage of precisely those areas where authors are missing out. The SoA advocates “clearer Contracts, including written contracts which set out the exact scope of the rights granted,” as well as “Equitable and unwaivable remuneration for all forms of exploitation, to include bestseller clauses so that if a work does far better than expected the creator shares in its success, even if copyright was assigned,” and “an obligation of Exploitation for each mode of exploitation, also known as the ‘use it or lose it’ Clause.”

In her related speech on the topic, SoA Chief Executive Nicola Solomon, emphasized that “authors are not in a strong negotiating position. Publishers are often large multinationals while authors typically work alone.” And, she added, “there’s precious little money about for professional authors these days, and what there is is concentrated in the hands of fewer authors.” Odd, that, since the publishing industry as a whole seems to be swimming in money.

“Authors often work in a solitary way, and our main task is very different from negotiating contracts and rights. It’s not always easy to see our way through the thickets of legal language that grow so vigorously around the commercial exploitation of our work,” added Philip Pullman, bestselling author and SoA President. “The essential point is that the balance of fairness has tilted the wrong way, and it’s often not only the work that’s being exploited – its creators are too. It’s time for that to stop.”

So what can individual authors do? Well, much as I hate to speak out for one group that exists to live off the income of authors, one option is to engage a good agent, who does have some chance to negotiate subsidiary rights and work through the thicket of possible avenues of exploitation. After all, any author probably hopes to be approached by a publisher one day, even if self-published, and when that happens, it’s either use an agent in the negotiations or go it alone. But with agents or singly, the wisest option is to insist on contracts that contain terms like those cited by the SoA. If need be, use the SoA’s own contract vetting service or something similar. The alternative is to be fed unawares into some very big and sophisticated machines equipped to squeeze every last drop of value out of your work, in ways and places you might never dream of. Creators deserve better than that.


  1. First: In every contract I’ve ever seen, authors get 50% of almost all rights sales by publishers, and they don’t have to do anything at all to help sell them.

    Second: Why would publishers focus on authors or writers when selling rights? They focus on things or people that help them SELL the rights, not on the people who get paid for it — at that point in the process.

    Publishing is complex, and you have to focus on the parts and pieces that are relevant to each section of the process. No one even TALKS to authors for most of it. There’s very little that they can contribute to the work once the writing is finished, other than marketing to consumers. And there’s a whole big bunch of stuff to do between writing and release date.

    Third: Authors who keep their sub-rights rarely sell any of them. Why? Because it’s a radically different process than the initial sale of rights, or the marketing to the public, much less writing the work in the first place.

    When the authors license all rights to a publisher, the publisher actually has a far, far better chance of selling ancillary rights than the author does, at least in my experience.

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