February 12th, 2016

What Rights Does a Publisher Really Need? (Part 1)

Susan Spann

Susan SpannWhether you publish traditionally or opt for a self-publishing path, it’s important to understand the terms of the contract under which your books are published (or distributed, in the case of author-publishers). In the months to come, my guest posts here at Writers in the Storm will take a look at some critical contract clauses authors should look for—and beware of.

(Most of the contract terms will apply to traditional publishing contracts, but authors should understand both sides of the business, no matter which they choose…and sometimes dangerous clauses find their way into self-publishing terms of use as well.)

One of the most important, and most confusing, parts of a publishing contract is the “Grant of Rights” or “License” paragraph. Unfortunately the grant of rights (or license) isn’t always confined to a single paragraph. In many cases, the “Grant of Rights” addresses only print and ebook rights and territory, with other rights addressed in a paragraph called “Subsidiary Rights” or “Additional Rights.”

Taken together, the various grants of rights in a publishing deal establish exactly which rights the author is licensing (or “granting”) to the publisher in the contract. For this reason, it’s crucial for authors to understand how to read these clauses and understand exactly which rights a publisher does—and doesn’t—need.

Contract language varies widely from publisher to publisher, but here are some of the common rights a publisher might ask for in a publishing deal:

1. Territorial rights (also called “Geographic Rights” or “The Territory”).

Most publishers want (and need) worldwide ebook rights, and will ask for exclusive worldwide rights to print editions also. While it makes sense to allow your publisher worldwide ebook rights, because of the ease of ebook distribution, authors need to evaluate the publisher’s distribution network before making the business decision to allow worldwide print rights. Many publishers have the ability to distribute books internationally, but some do not.

Agree to grant only those territorial rights the publisher has the capacity to fulfill in a meaningful manner.

Note: POD (or “print on demand”) publishers often have a more difficult time fulfilling international orders; if your press is POD, you may want to consider granting North American print distribution only.

2. Print and ebook (or “digital/electronic”) rights.

The standard “grant of rights” in a publishing contract normally includes both print and ebook rights, unless the publisher focuses on “ebook first,” in which case only ebooks may be covered. Publishers normally want “exclusive rights” to print and ebook publication within a stated territory and in a specified language (in the U.S., English) or languages (more on language rights in a minute). Before the rise of ebooks, contracts sometimes specified “print rights only,” but publishers now want both.

“Print and ebook” normally also includes serial rights (the right to publish your work in serial format rather than in a single volume—though publishers don’t generally do this unless they discuss it with you in advance) and non-dramatic reading rights — which translates to “audiobook rights” … 

3. “Enhanced Ebooks” and audiobooks.

“Enhanced ebooks” include other forms of media like video clips, interactive maps, soundtracks and audio extras in addition to the text of an author’s work. They’re currently uncommon, but may become more popular in time, and many publishing contracts already mention them in the grant of rights.

Audiobooks are more familiar, and most publishers’ standard contracts ask for a license of audio rights, either in the grant of rights or in a “subsidiary rights” paragraph.

Many publishers will let authors retain these rights, but generally you have to ask for it during the contract negotiations.

4. Translation Rights.

“Translation rights” refers to the right to translate (or license translation of) the work into other languages. Many publishing contracts start with the author granting the publisher both the English language rights and also translation rights to every form and format of the work.

The language you’re looking for is: “Author grants the Publisher the right to publish the work in all languages, forms and formats, worldwide” – or something that means essentially the same thing.

As a general rule, publishers don’t need rights they lack the capacity and interest to sell and properly exploit. For example, small publishing houses don’t normally have an in-house translation department, and often lack an active foreign rights sales department, too. As with territorial rights, the decision to license translation rights to a publisher is a business decision the author should make on the basis of the publisher’s ability to exercise the rights (and history of successful licensing), as well as the author’s own resources when it comes to licensing foreign rights.

Literary agents often have more incentive to license the foreign and translation rights to their authors’ works than publishing houses do. Authors without an agent may not have the resources to license foreign rights today…but might acquire an agent in the future. Keep these factors in mind when evaluating a grant of foreign or translation rights.

Don’t Forget to Negotiate Grants of Rights.

Grants of rights are often negotiable, particularly if you know what to ask for (and how to ask).

For example, if your publisher wants translation rights, don’t be afraid to ask questions during the negotiation process. Ask about the publisher’s ability to license your translation rights and how much experience the publisher has with licensing translations of other works. The answers will help you evaluate whether licensing translation rights makes sense in your situation.

If you don’t want to give up foreign language rights, but the publisher won’t eliminate the grant of translation rights from the contract, ask about adding a clause that allows you to revert the rights to yourself after a stated time if the publisher hasn’t licensed them. For example, a paragraph giving you the ability to terminate and reclaim any translation rights the publisher hasn’t licensed 36 months after the book’s initial English language release.

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That’s a lot to take in for one blog, so we’ll leave it there for now…and next month, we’ll pick up with a discussion of the “Subsidiary rights” publishers often ask for—and which ones you should be keeping for yourself. 

In the meantime: what are your biggest publishing contract questions or concerns?

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About Susan 

Flask of the Drunken Master


Susan Spann writes the Hiro Hattori (Shinobi) mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her fourth novel, THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER, will release from Seventh Street Books in August 2016.

Susan is the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2015 Writer of the Year, and a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing and business law. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.

Find her online at http://www.SusanSpann.com, on Twitter (@SusanSpann), and on Facebook (SusanSpannAuthor).

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