Rights Sales: For Best Results, Slice and Dice

November 2007
by John Kremer

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John KremerJohn Kremer (photo right) is the author of 1001 Ways to Market Your Books, 6th ed., and developer of the New York Times Bestseller Promotion. For more information, see www.bookmarket.com.


One of the most important things to remember when buying and selling subsidiary rights is that every right can be cut into as many pieces as you want. To maximize your subsidiary rights income and at the same time retain greater control over your intellectual property, learn how to slice and dice rights. Below are a few of the ways that you can do that.

Remember: All rights contracts should specify exactly what rights you are granting, and state that you retain all other rights.

Before and after pub date. You can sell first serial rights or second serial rights to periodicals. First serial rights entitle a periodical to publish material from a book before the book’s publication date. Second serial rights entitle it to publish material from the book after the book has been published. You can segment some other rights similarly.

Time limits. Any right can be sold with a time limit attached. For example, mass-market reprint rights are often sold for three to seven years. Foreign rights licenses are also often limited to a certain number of years. If you have any concerns about the rights buyer, one of the best ways to retain control is to set a time limit.

In addition to setting a time for the return of rights that a buyer has exercised, you can also require that buyers exercise their rights within a certain period. Use a contract clause specifying that when buyers fail to exercise their rights during that time, the rights revert back to you.

Similarly, you can set the time when a buyer can begin to exercise a right. For instance, to give your original edition time to sell, you can require that a reprinter wait a year (or more) after pub date to publish its edition.

Exclusivity. Any right can be sold on an exclusive or a nonexclusive basis. Whenever possible, sell nonexclusively. Anyone who wants an exclusive should pay more for it. While some rights require exclusivity (e.g., movie rights), others can readily be sold as nonexclusive (e.g., book club rights).

Options. Movie rights are often sold first in terms of options. An option allows a buyer to pay a smaller amount while trying to put a deal together. If the deal doesn’t happen, rights revert back to the seller.

Format. Rights are, of course, often broken down by format: book, audio, video, electronic, performance, and so on.

Rights are also broken down into format subcategories. For example, you can sell book rights to reprint in hardcover, trade paperback, mass-market paperback, limited edition, miniature format, and the like. Rights to each such format can be sold separately.

In addition, you can restrict rights within various media, including audio, video, and electronic. For instance, you might make separate audio rights deals for audiotapes, CDs, and MP3. The best way to do this is to specify the media that the rights pertain to and specifically exclude all others (unless the same buyer wants to buy the rights to reproduce audio for them).

Pieces. You can sell rights to pieces of a book—not just serial rights to periodicals but also reprint rights for pieces to be packaged as premium editions, miniature books, pocket guides, purse books, and so on. Sell whatever portion a buyer wants. Retain rights to the rest to sell to other buyers, perhaps even to competitors.

Abridgements. Audio rights are often sold for abridged or unabridged versions, and you can use the same breakdown for rights in other formats. This may allow you to make more than one sale for the same format or medium. For example, the first Chicken Soup for the Soul book was also offered as an abridged version called A Cup of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Dramatic rights. With audio especially, you can distinguish between rights for dramatic and nondramatic readings of a book. You might do the same with video and performance rights.

Markets. You can grant one publisher the right to publish a book for the religious market and another the right to sell to the general bookstore market, while retaining rights to publish and sell an edition to premium and corporate buyers. Similarly, you can sell first serial rights for an excerpt to a travel magazine and sell the same excerpt to a food magazine by limiting the serial rights deal to a specific audience.

Marketing channels. In selling rights, you can distinguish among the means rights buyers will use to reach a market. For example, you can sell another publisher the right to distribute a book through normal trade-book channels but retain rights to sell via mail order, telephone sales, the Internet, and so on. If you retain such rights explicitly in a contract, you are free to exercise them later yourself—or sell them to someone else. This could be critical if someone wants to build an infomercial around your book.

Territory. You can restrict any right in terms of the geographic territory where it may be used. Although territorial boundaries are blurred in the age of the Internet, this restriction is still useful in selling foreign rights, and conceivably it could be used to set regional restrictions within a country as well.

Language. All subsidiary rights can be sold separately for every language on earth—if someone is interested in buying them. Generally, when you sell translation rights to a book to a foreign publisher, that publisher also acquires many of the subsidiary rights within the specified language. The most important subsidiary translation rights are serial, book club, audio, and electronic, but don’t undermine your ability to sell movie rights in English by selling movie rights in another language.

Editorial restrictions. When selling any right, you can always specify that you must approve any editorial changes. This could be important if you are concerned about integrity of content, especially with condensation rights, reprint rights, and translation rights. Such restrictions can also be important when licensing merchandising rights, to make sure that your brand image or title is not used inappropriately on T-shirts, calendars, posters, coffee mugs, and the like.

Advertising restrictions. If the way your brand is presented is important to you, you should also impose restrictions and/or require the rights buyer to get your consent on ads and promotional materials.

Performance. You can always sell rights with a performance clause attached that says if the buyer doesn’t sell a specified number of copies or doesn’t perform in some other specified way, the rights revert back to you. Performance clauses are especially important when your income is based on the rights buyer’s sales.

Minimum sales. Many merchandise licenses include a clause requiring that royalties be paid on a minimum number of sales regardless of whether the licensee actually makes those sales. If the minimum is not achieved, rights don’t necessarily revert back to you, but at least you make the money you planned on getting from that specific right.

General principles. When selling rights, read—and/or have your attorney read—any contract offered you as carefully as possible. When offering a buyer a rights contract, be sure to include every point that is important to you, and at least consider consulting a lawyer with expertise in the book business.

All rights are fully negotiable. Set any restrictions you need to be comfortable.

If you don’t understand what you are signing, don’t sign it. Keep asking questions until you are satisfied you know exactly what the rights deal entails.

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