Thursday, October 18, 2007

Lauren Abramo explains subrights

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 Michael Bourret, who is now focusing entirely on his personal client list. Said department had consisted only of Michael and me, with some much appreciated help from the interns who suffer hand cramps filling out customs declarations, brain damage from trying to figure out the best postage options to get books halfway around the world quickly without spending our entire commission, and sneeze attacks scouring the shelves for copies of books to send uptown, across the country, and to far off lands. Fortunately for me, and for Michael before me, we have a fantastic network of co-agents scattered across the globe who know the ins and outs of the markets, publishing houses and production companies, so that we don’t have to do all the legwork ourselves.

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 UK and Commonwealth—as well as audio books, film adaptations, and serial rights—book excerpts printed in magazines and newspapers.

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 New York—and some ourselves directly with production companies. While I’m often the first point of contact on film rights, every deal is a bit different, and submissions and negotiations are handled by some combination of a co-agent, the agent who sold the book rights, and me.

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.


  1. Thanks. This was very informative!

  2. Wow. Thanks for this post.

  3. Lauren, with an impending WGA strike, (whether it happens is questionable), did you see a cut back of film rights sales, or at least a hesitation on the part of studios?

    Second... did you ever negotiate for the book author to have first try at screenplay adaptation of his/her material? Or even script approval? Yep, hard to get, but it's another payday.

    (Yes, I know, the author's material would have to make a helluva wake in the entertainment world and said author would have to have alot of "HEAT" to demand this, but why not start kickin' and scratchin' sooner than later. Hollywood does)!

    Of course, all of this goes to the central question of "control" of the author's work, and how to get the most from it. It's not just the single copy of a book in hand, but the years of writing, honing, rewriting, learning by rejection, gut twising, angst, worry, paid and unpaid bills... simply put... the writer's life and reasonable recompense!

    "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage!"

    Someone, somewhere, (insert author's name here), "thunk" it all up and put it to words. Don't let the "suits" piss on it!

    Haste yee back ;-)

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  5. Thanks for a great post, Lauren.

  6. Thanks for this blog entry, Lauren! Very helpful.

  7. I'm really surprised about the audio portion of the rights. I subscribe to Audible, so I get 2 audio books from them a month and download them right to my ipod. I can listen to them while at work, so I'm actually going through them at the same speed that I'm going through hard copies. It's a different experience, but I really enjoy it.

  8. the cost...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

    Wow, good point! For some reason, I thought of foreign rights as foreign sales in general, not as the subset that needs to be translated etc. But I can think of several countries off the top of my head where they stock English-language books (even if that's not the country's official language) so what you're saying makes total sense.

    Thanks for a great post!

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