A Subsidiary Rights Kick-Start

A Subsidiary Rights Kick-Start

This is a blog birthed from experience. I’ve been on both sides of a contract and have heard quite a few positive and negative experiences about this seemingly confusing section of a publishing agreement. Enough to encourage writers not to ignore the “small print.” All the same, subsidiary rights can be confusing, but the monetizing elements are worth authors investing time and study on the topic.

What are Subsidiary Rights? There are several phrases for this collective that publishers and agents leverage to gain additional income for themselves and their author clientele. Sometimes referred to as master rights, sub-rights, or publishing rights, these “deal-making” contract elements are more notably known as subsidiary rights. Most publishing contracts—built from boilerplates—address and assign common rights to one of two parties—author or publisher.

These include but are not limited to:

  • World Rights and Foreign Language Sales
  • Anthologies and Excerpts
  • Book Clubs, Digital, and Visual Adaptations
  • Reprints Hardcover, Trade and Mass Paperback
  • Radio, Television, Film, Audio, Performance

Why Do They Matter? Rights are the real money makers. Book sales alone often don’t exceed royalties in the first run for most authors and therefore publishers rely on sub rights to kick in the profits. In some cases, books don’t get the attention of readers until they become a film, or the topic of the book may appeal more to a British audience and therefore British Commonwealth Rights tip the profit scales. Typically publishing contracts are written so all rights are turned over to the publisher. This is not a trick, it’s a fact. That’s why it’s smart to read your contract in advance and work with your agent to help them negotiate wisely and give the author back some of their subsidiary rights.

Which Should You Retain? Your literary agent should educate you on subsidiary rights, especially those you will want to retain. On rare occasions, your agent may sell sub rights before they sell your book to an editor. For example, it might go straight to movie before the book is released, such as in the case of Hidden Figures or The Hate You Give. Some authors negotiate to keep world and film rights and will sell book club and anthology rights to the publisher. But again, this depends on the author, the book topic, the market, and the agent’s ability to negotiate. It might be wise to consult with a literary attorney before turning over subsidiary rights and in my opinion, before signing any contract.

Where To Go Now? My knowledge is built from research and experience, but it’s certainly in its infancy. I’m no expert and to be honest, while I’m low on the expert spectrum, there are very few (outside of a seasoned agent, attorney, and publisher) who can claim prowess on the topic. Yet, ignorance isn’t bliss. When you enter a book project, or any publishing project, you’ll be signing your name to a legally binding agreement. One that is asking for you to agree to keep or distribute your rights. So, it’s wise to do your homework. Here are a few places to get started:

In closing I’ll remind you that this is not a comprehensive list nor a professional’s opinion on the topic. Rather it’s a kick-start, a boot in the backside, encouraging you to not only read the contract fine print but to ask thoughtful questions and get expert advice before you sign your name on the dotted line.

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