With the Frankfurt Book Fair just passing, now seems the perfect time to bring you into the weird world of subsidiary and ancillary rights.
Why me, you ask? In July I had the pleasure of taking over the agency’s sub rights “department” to fill the formidable, but fashionable shoes of
So what exactly are subrights? Basically they’re rights derived from the book itself, including foreign editions—both in translation and in English in the
When you sign that book contract with a publisher, you’ll see something called the Grant of Rights, which essentially spells out which of those rights you’re giving to the publisher and which you’re not. For example, nearly all publishers buy the e-book and book club rights in a standard contract. Others, like multimedia and film, are often reserved by the author—though those following the news about partnerships between publishers and film producers will know that the publisher trying to buy film rights is increasingly common.
Being the subrights director at DGLM mostly involves foreign and audio rights, with some film and serial in there for good measure. As an agency, we do some of our film business with co-agents—many of them in LA, some in
Other rights, like foreign, audio and serial, are handled by me regardless of the agent who sold the book rights. Serial rights come in two varieties—first and second. For first serial the excerpt runs before the book is published, and for second, which is almost always controlled by the publisher, it runs after. Like many facets of the business, serial is undergoing a transformation. Fewer and fewer magazines and newspapers are buying serial rights, the conventional wisdom being that they don’t want to pay for an excerpt when they can just have a staff writer whose salary they’re already paying review or write about the book for free. Those of you who caught the PW article linked above may also have seen this one on the changing face of serial rights. And when an excerpt from Alan Greenspan’s book reportedly sold for only $1—ouch. These days serial is much more a publicity opportunity—and not terribly easy to come by with so many publications reducing their book coverage—rather than a real moneymaker.
Audio’s a whole different ballgame, though that doesn’t necessarily make easy. Have any of you bought or contemplated buying an audio book recently? If you have, you know just how expensive they can be, which means they’re not going to sell as many copies as the same book that’s a fraction of the price; if you haven’t, well, now you know why so many books don’t actually get to be published in audio editions. With the cost of production, low demand and the high price point needed to have a shot at paying back those costs, audio books are a tough market. In order to compete, a book really needs one of two things—to be a very big deal in its book release or to be the sort of book that would do well in the library market. Bearing in mind that most audio books are published simultaneous with the first release of the book, and that they need to be sold, recorded, produced and packaged before that time, but after the manuscript is available for the audio editors’ review, that’s not a terribly large window for selling audio. When that window happens to line up with the timeframe in which good information is available on the publisher’s plans for publication, publicity and marketing—and when that information indicates the likelihood of success in audio—authors can find a happy home in a different medium.
Last but by no means least, foreign rights. Fortunately for sub rights as a whole, while foreign rights are by no means simple to sell, in most categories things are not quite so bleak as they can be with something like serial. A book that “travels,” meaning it appeals to a foreign audience, can find itself republished in different translations and editions around the world. The tricky thing is that the book has to be perceived to be of interest to enough people in a particular territory that the cost of buying the rights, translating and producing the book will be offset by the number of people interested enough to buy the book and not interested in reading it in the original edition, which will often be available, whether through distribution in the territory or from the U.S. itself.
Though I’ve done my fair share of laying out the reasons that sub rights are tough, I must say what a great part of my job that it is. I love getting to speak to and email with people who are outside of the typical New York book publishing world—either in foreign countries, Los Angeles production companies, big magazine offices in midtown, or audio publishers wherever they happen to be—and hear different perspectives on whether or not a book “works.” It’s absolutely fascinating to be able to really look at the big picture and evaluate a project not just for how it’s going to work on the bookshelf at the Barnes and Noble on the north side of Union Square, but in the multiplex, the car CD player, the newsstand and the whole wide world.