Sunday, January 13, 2008

Subrights--to sell or not to sell? (an editor has to add her two cents)

A lot of author and agent bloggers have been posting recently (and probably forever) about subrights, splits, advances, etc. This whole discussion can be pretty intimidating because after a little while the royalties start to look like "calculus," as Aprilynne so charmingly put it in this post.

I'm not going to focus on the math here (alas, my math skills peaked in 10th grade when on some miscommunication among various faculties I accidentally got invited to join the math team; invitation was promptly rescinded within 12 months of issue). You can read Aprilynne's for a comprehensive breakdown. I do, however, want to talk about the contract end of things, which is something editors (and agents) have to think about, but that authors SHOULD know more about. If you're an author on a verge of a contract, please think carefully about these things--a lot of them never crossed your mind when you were working on your baby, and I don't blame you. Some of them are totally counterintuitive.

Think of your book, published. You're probably picturing a number of pages (divisible by 16, of course) between some kind of cover with an image on the front and your name on the spine. YOU (and your friends) see that as your book; your editor and agent, however, see an indefinable chunk of intellectual capital that is loosely represented by the 8-16 pages of your contract as your book. To expound:

Your English-language American hardcover has a variety of "subrights" associated with it--trade paperback, mass market paperback, ebook formats; film, dramatic, theatrical renditions; non-dramatic audio recordings, both abridged and unabridged, both in the US and in the UK and elsewhere (these rights are often sold separately in territory contracts); Great British, Canadian, Australian, and Braille English language publication; Estonian, Hebrew, Swahili, Galician, Indonesian, and simplified AND classical Chinese translation; serialization of passages in periodicals before AND after publication (two different rights there); the syndication of material for use on desk calendars, action figures, plush toys, wallpaper, scholastic bulletin boards, and promotional materials; large print versions, book clubs, abridgments, antholigizations, reprints, and publications in formats yet unknown to contract drafters (contracts from the 80s usually won't have ebook clauses, but count on that last clause to cover ebooks these days). By the way, I'm only listing SOME of the rights your intellectual property can be licensed to cover. Basically, your book is more than you ever imagined when you were writing it.

Generally, sales of subsidiary rights are not what your agent or your editor (or you) thinks about the most--they're probably most focused on the successful publication in traditional format of your book, since if everything takes off, people will come to you wanting to buy your rights. However, there are some pretty pennies to be made on rights sales. Although most advances are modest (often modest in the extreme), rights are sold with royalty percentages, just like books are, and authors can often earn considerable pocket change off of rights sales (all while increasing their personal global influence).

The important thing to remember? Rights sales can make you money and get you famous, but they take tireless advocacy. You HAVE to be your own advocate here, regardless of whether you have retained or sold rights to your home-country publishing house (you and your agent both). You have to follow up with your agent and your agent has to follow up with your editor. Your editor follows up with the company's rights department, who follow up with the foreign scouts and agents, who follow up with editors at foreign publishing companies. With such a long chain of communicants, there is a lot of harassment involved in any successful execution of business. I'll admit it to you--I get a little irritated when I see another agent email asking for follow-up on recent rights sales news, but I quash my irritation immediately--rights sales are good for my company AND for my author, although they are an awful lot of work.

Always keep in mind that there is less incentive for your editor/agent to sell subrights than there is for them to, say, work on editorial sides of things, or work on marketing the book in the most mainstream of channels. Your editor, especially, loves you and wants rights sold and buzz created, but please harass her nicely. Friendly reminders are the best things possible.

You can also do some footwork for yourself to help the editor help the foreign scouts WANT to help you. You've written a novel about cats, and for some reason there have been two extremely successful novels about cats in Germany in the last three years. Tell your editor! Go on to, find the books, and pass along the authors, titles, and publishing companies to your editor. Those are the German houses to target for successful rights sales! Do you have a British friend who published a novel with a British house and who is friendly with her editor there? Get her to tell her editor about you and your book! If that editor can't help you, s/he might know someone who can. There are little things you can do to kick-start the process.

There is also a truism that rights sales beget rights sales (lots of things beget themselves in publishing; it's great and frustrating all at the same time). So if you can help your editor/agent seal the deal on a sale or two, the likelihood that sales 3, 4, and 5 will happen becomes ever so much higher. Notice how the backs of books never say "translated into 3 languages"? That's because either no one picked them up for translation, because there were no successful rights sales, or 21 companies in 21 countries picked them up for translation, because they saw everyone else doing it. Magical. So help get yourself over the big first hump if you can.

But with all this mess of different kinds of rights and zillions of people involved, how can you decide which right you even want to sell or keep at the time of contract negotiation? How can you decide how much certain rights are worth to you? All you wanted was to see your book on bookstore shelves!! This is probably the trickiest thing you will ever do in your entire time in publishing, but you must must MUST read and understand your contract and the subrights you're being promised, and you MUST come to terms with your house's capabilities, your agent's capabilities, and your own.

Every writer is in a very different position regarding rights, who wants them, and how much they'll pay for them. First of all, be honest with yourself about the capabilities of the house that's bidding on your book and the capabilities of your agents. Selling rights successfully involves having a lot of foreign contacts. This is where the size of your house and agent and your position on the food chain matter. Some examples:

One of my babies, "Emily," is a big book on my list represented by an excellent agent who has had four of her writers make it onto the New York Times bestseller list. She's a brilliant example of a successful boutique agent. She works out of her house, though, and has an agency staff of one (herself). Because she was realistic about her abilities to sell foreign rights, her own contact list, and my company's relative capabilities, she advised the author (I believe wisely) to sell me World rights. The upside for the author? My rights department has already sold several languages, large print, book club, audio, and ebook licenses--all of which her agent would most likely not have been able to sell on her own. The downside for the author? She has to share the profits from her sales with my company, as we need to pay our Rights department. But she's still getting a better deal than if she had retained her rights and counted solely on her agents, who is an excellent businesswoman, negotiated good royalty splits, and is a tireless author advocate.

From the editor's point of view, "Emily" was good for my company, too, since she has a lot of commercial potential and she gave us something to be really proud of at various international rights sales venues in the past year. Having "Emily" on our "Available Rights" list helped draw attention to the other smaller properties we had on the list, too, meaning some incidental sales that increased our house prestige. Not that you, the author, really care about that end, but just so you understand why companies fight for the subrights the way they do. It looks much better when we have stuff to offer.

On the flip side: another one of my babies, "Tamar," is a less commercial debut novel represented by a very large agency with its own rights department and its own audio sales department (in other words, more people than work at a lot of small companies). Because the agent (and I) were both realistic about our respective capabilities, the agent was only willing to sell me North American English rights. As an editor, I'm supposed to tell you that the author should have sold rights to me, but honestly the author and agent did the right thing from the author's point of view. If the agent sells those subsidiary rights, the author won't have to give me and mine a significant cut of the rights advances. The downside? If the agent is unable to sell those rights, it will mean that the book is never available to certain markets, whereas if we had World rights, at least the author's friends in Franistan would be able to buy a copy when it came out (as is, we don't have the right to ship anything to Franistan).

So things to consider when you're realistically evaluating your book's subright potential:

-How much outreach does your agent have? Actually? Be realistic. There is nothing wrong with having a small agent, and by all means, don't judge an agency by size--as I mentioned, "Emily" has an agent who, although all on her own, has had four different authors on the NYT bestsellers, two of them more than once. Also, going with a really big agency might end in your book getting lost or eaten by the big fish the agency already has. But DO be straight with your agent about their rights sales capabilities, because that's a whole different set of issues.

-How much outreach does your publishing company have? Do they have their own Rights people, or do they rely on already overburdened scouts and co-agents to a greater degree than you'd like? Also, are they a huge whopping company with a billion titles? This can be a pro or a con--there are often very strong midlist sales on unexpected books by big companies; at the same time, you will never have any kind of personal clout via your agent via your editor via the Rights director to encourage movement on your book at a large company, so if you ARE a midlist title, your fate is left entirely up to chance. Make sure you're being compensated for your uncertainty if you end up selling rights--the more rights you give up, the more money you should get as an advance. But there is push-pull in contract negotiation, so make sure you know which rights you'd rather give up than keep (ie, where your house's sales strengths lie). This will make everyone--you, your agent, your editor, and foreign companies--blissfully happy, because everyone will perceive that they are getting what they have paid for.

-Does the topic of your book have exportable potential? If you've written a history book about Native Americans, it's possible there is going to be significantly less interest in England than there will be in the United States. As a result, it might make it impossible for your agent to sell UK rights independently. In your particular case, you might want to give up UK rights without a fight to your house (of course, make them pay more for them). Then, at least your house can "run on"--print the number of copies they think they'll be able to sell in the UK, say, 500--a number way too small to make a separate rights sale profitable to any UK company, but a number that will end in significant pocket change for you. If your agent keeps those rights, that's money you forfeit and a whole group of people that can't read your book.

Keep in mind that there must be a minimum print run--usually, the smallest print runs at even the smallest companies are over 2,000--to make the book worth publishing on any level. If a market is going to be unable to absorb at least 2,000 copies or the book, it might be in your interest to sell those rights to your house for the run-on. This is why you'll see most sales clump "North America" together. Canada tends to take a nice chunk of, oh, 500 copies of a good US book; on those specs, it is very difficult to sell rights to a Canadian company to publish on their own, and it makes more sense to everyone to keep those books batched and printed together.

There's a lot to think about here, and I've just committed a public thought-dump. Please let me know if there are any things I can flesh out for you here. I needed to get my side of it in, though--there are things like print runs, shipping potentials, and negotiation points that I don't think a lot of authors, especially first-time authors, would know to think of. But subsidiary rights have the potential to make everyone happy (as opposed to making everyone upset and angry, which can definitely happen when lines are crossed or contract negotiations are not prioritized).


Jaye Wells said...

Great food for thought. I've talked to my agent about this, but it's nice to get an editor's pov. Also, I'd never heard the word "anthologizations" before. Cool.

Precie said...

Fascinating! Thanks so much for explaining all that and pointing out some of the crucial considerations!

Shameless said...

Wow, what a wonderful insight into all of that. I can see how it's essential that an author is aware of all of this. Your posts are very generous! :-)

Colorado Writer said...

Thank you for being so generous with your time! I'm not math-oriented, so this helps.

Holly Kennedy said...

Loved your public thought-dump!
Thanks for posting it. The sheer number of negotiable deal-points often leaves me shaking my head.

To date, I've been fortunate to have a foreign rights agent who champions my work and does what's best for me after North American rights have been sold.

cyn said...

wow. helpful and informative. thanks MR!

Ello said...

This was a great thought dump. I love when you dump on us like this. always a learning experience.

And I know Tamar is probably not the same as your example, but the Tamar I read is also a great book.

Demon Hunter said...

Whoa. You've given us lots to consider, Moorat. Thank you so much for your insight. :*) I didn't know any of this stuff, except the few snippets I got from blogs.

Charles Gramlich said...

Definetely a post I intend to bookmark and come back to. Thanks very much for this information.

The Trouble With Roy said...

This was an excellent post. Everyday I learn more about publishing from you than I ever knew existed. Thanks for doing this. (Plus it's well written!)

Anonymous said...

thank you so much!!

Maprilynne said...

Nice post! Informative and long. A winning combination.:)

Miladysa said...

Oh My...

I didn't have a clue...

Still don't...

After reading this post though I am in a better position than before I visited this blog!

Thank you!

btw, I am soooo glad I don't have your job - it sounds a nightmare ;)

ORION said...

hey this was great!
I never had a clue about foreign rights until the day after my book went to auction...This post is right on! For me WMA (who has everything under one roof) was the ideal way to go.

ORION said...

Oh by the way- whenever I hear a writer complain about having to get an agent - I'm going to link to this post LOL!

Church Lady said...

It's great of you to share all this information. It feels overwhelming though. I will bookmark this page and refer back to it like Charles.

Anonymous said...


You did it again. A terrific post. Full of useful information. I just posted your site to our bookartists list serv.


Sheri said...

My head is reeling! I have so much to learn. For now I am just striving to get to that last word on that last page. But I will tuck the word “rights” into a wrinkle of my brain for later use.

Thank you so much for all your information and insider tips.

Tory said...

At the risk of sounding like a total loser...what? lol...I will have to take it a bit at a time, but I really do appreciate the time you take to keep us fledglings informed. I also will be bookmarking this.
You're a gem, moonrat!!
Take care

angelle said...

holy batmobile, you weren't kidding when you said your readership surged.

word veri: rikky. haha.

Bernita said...

MoonDear, thank you.
You are wonderful.