Friday, February 15, 2008

Lauren Abramo on subrights

I recently received an email from one of our blog readers asking for a post on what authors should expect of their agents where sub rights are concerned to follow up on my most recent post [imbed link:].

So how do we decide which rights to market for which books? It’s not unlike how we decide which projects to represent in the first place. We have to know the various markets and understand how, if at all, our clients’ work fits in. If you don’t have a relationship with any periodical publishers and there are no exciting secrets revealed in your book, chances are that serial’s not going to be a hot commodity. Likewise, cookbooks don’t generally make good audio books, and business books aren’t likely to become movies. It’s not doing anyone any favors if we try to push books we know don’t make sense in a particular market, so we don’t, just as we wouldn’t try to sell a true crime book to a science fiction publisher.

Once we’ve made a deal, then the agent and I, as the agency’s sub rights director, start to plan for which rights we’ll actively try to market for that book, and when we’ll plan to do that. The agent on the book talks to me about which rights they think have the most potential and helps to coordinate and get the info I need to try to sell them.

With foreign rights, we maintain a rights list that tells our co-agents which books we control the rights to. It tells them about the book and keeps them up to date on which territories we’ve sold in. Every few months and several weeks before each major international rights fair, our co-agents receive this updated list so they can share it with their editorial contacts. In addition, we give them a highlight list, with titles that have just recently sold or that have received renewed attention—maybe because the author’s platform has dramatically changed or because a film adaptation is being released. And we get in touch about individual titles as well—when galleys come in, for example, or when we find out about an article that suggests a country might be newly interested in a topic that one of our past books covers. That means we’re not only talking to our co-agents about our new books, but about all our books, and foreign deals can be made long after initial book publication. A very sizeable chunk of our foreign rights income last year was for books published in the 90s.

Now that’s not going to work with all rights—rare is the audio book that’s released after the initial publication of a book, since audio publishers need to capitalize on the publisher’s publicity for the launch. And first serial rights are actually moot once the book is published by definition. With audio and first serial, you’ve really only got that limited timeframe prior to publication to make a sale—and sometimes short publication schedules can be a hindrance here, since audio and serial publishers need to make their decisions and do the work to publish after manuscripts are done but before the book publishes. If the schedule allows for a shot at these and we believe the book makes sense for those rights, we’ll get it in the right hands.

Film and television rights are a bit more complicated in some ways. We do use co-agents for some of our projects, usually those that we expect will be most likely to catch the attention of Hollywood. Other books—those our co-agents aren’t getting excited about or which we believe will not get the attention they deserve amidst bigger, flashier books—we often deal with ourselves. We meet regularly with producers and managers who come to visit New York and stop by the office to discuss our client list. We hear what they’re looking for and pitch the books that fit that need—regardless of when they were published. And throughout the year, they check in with us to ask about what we’ve got, to update us on what new kind of project they’re looking for, to tell us they’ve just heard X network is looking for the next Y, and do we have anything? While the book-to-film options you’re most likely to hear about are for the big buzz books that have just sold at auction or the current bestsellers, we probably do more deals a year for older titles than for the brand new ones.

Our faithful reader’s last question really speaks to more than just sub rights: Is it logical for the client to ask what has been done on behalf of the work? When it comes to the agent/client relationship, each is different and we let our clients lead the way on that for the most part, but it’s our belief that an author always has the right to ask questions. Part of the reason we’re writing this blog is to answer the questions our clients and other writers may not realize they can or should be asking. We always share the good news right away and wait on the bad news till its decision time or we’re asking for an update. When our clients ask how things are going, they may not hear what they want to hear, but they always have the right to hear it.

Keep in mind, though, that one of the great things about sub rights is that, at least for foreign and film/TV rights, it’s never really the end of the line. Things might be quiet for large periods of time, but we’re still selling rights to books that have been on the shelves—and in some cases, even on the shelves and already off them—years down the line.