What REAL Agents Do – Part 4, Subsidiary Rights

Okay, folks, time for the last post in my “What REAL Agents Do” series. Today’s topic will be a brief overview of the subsidiary rights agents handle. A caveat: I am not an agent. I am not a literary or IP attorney. I’m basing these posts on what I’ve observed and experienced during the past 22 years of my career as a writer. YMMV.

First, let’s define “subsidiary rights.” These are rights other than the ones that are primarily conveyed in a book sale, which is First North American book publication rights in hardcover, trade paperback and mass-market paperback. (It used to be that paperback rights were considered subsidiary rights, but that hasn’t been true for a long time.) Subsidiary rights can be transferred to the publisher via the contract or retained by the author, depending on the terms of the contract.

Some typical examples of subsidiary rights are:

1. Foreign rights – that is, the sale of the book to countries other than the United States and Canada. These rights can be broken down further between English language speaking countries, such as the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, and countries where translation would be necessary, such as Germany, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Papua New Guinea, Nigeria, etc., etc., etc.

2. Film or television rights

3. Book club rights

4. Audio rights

5. Electronic publication rights. This one can be a deal-breaker, despite the fact that publishers don’t seem to know what to do with them. Yet. However, it’s my opinion that every author should at least try to limit the description of what these rights cover. Signing a contract where electronic rights are “defined” as everything ever invented, now or in the future that could be construed as an electronic right probably is not a good idea. (She noted dryly.) One possible way to limit this is to give the author approval of any electronic licensing deal. Another way would be to specify a minimum amount that must be paid for any electronic right, so that the publisher will not just give away e-rights as a promotional tool.

6. Abridgement or condensation rights

7. Dramatic rights (for plays, rather than screenplays)

8. Merchandising rights (look in any Toys R Us at the Star Wars section)

9. Newspaper syndication rights, photocopying rights, Braille rights (usually neither the author nor the publisher receives any monies connected with having a book printed in Braille, it’s considered like a public service), novelization of screenplay rights and (though I’ve never encountered this, but it’s possible for some famous fantasy/s.f. universes) role-playing or electronic game rights (e-game rights would be different from e-text rights).

Just about anything you can imagine that can be done with a novel, short story or book can be covered by a specific right detailed in a contract. How specific and all-inclusive a contract is depends on the publisher and what the agent is able to negotiate.

Usually, the author keeps some portion of the subsidiary money, and the publisher gets the remainder. For example, in most of my contracts, I keep 75% of any possible film money and the publisher gets 25%. The splits are completely determined by negotiation.

The only subsidiary right that most authors will have experience with during their careers is foreign or UK/English speaking sales. In many cases, the agent will attempt to retain these rights and not license them to the publisher. Most agents, when they attempt to sell foreign rights, will work with a foreign rights agent. Many larger literary agencies have a whole foreign rights department. Commissions on foreign rights sales are higher than on domestic sales, because the commission is split between the domestic agent and the foreign agent. Other agents, who don’t have the capability to sell foreign rights, will let the publisher handle it, splitting any money from foreign sales.

Often, an agent or author will not negotiate the other subsidiary rights mentioned very aggressively, because in the vast majority of cases, they’re not worth much. Despite what you hear about million dollar film deals, etc., this kind of big money deal is RARE. Most authors will go through their entire careers without having films or television miniseries made from their works.

Okay, this concludes the basic primer on what REAL agents do. I hope it’s been useful.

I’ll be gone for the next couple of weeks, off on a southern vacation/writing retreat. Victoria is in New York for a few days, but should be back early next week, and she’ll be holding down the fort here at the blog.

Be safe, stay warm, and write on!

-Ann C. Crispin


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