5 insights for authors on rights & licenses from The London Book Fair

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Having self-published a few books and now trying to break into traditional publishing, I went to The London Book Fair’s “Introduction to Rights” to learn more about the ‘selling’ side of writing.

I’ve noticed some of my favourite authors distributing their stories in book and screen form, and I was curious to learn more about this mysterious aspect of storytelling.

It turns out that it’s a complex and layered process that I concluded, after attending the session, is best left to professionals. That being said, as an author, it was helpful to learn more about the following concepts.

1. Rights are primarily (but not only) about revenue

Why does anyone sell rights? Lynette Owen, Copyright and Rights Consultant, talked about how the first (obvious) reason is to generate extra revenue for the author and royalties for physical or electronic sales of their works.

She said that if the publishing house controls those rights, they’ll retain a share of that rights income to recognise their interest in the work. The author gets a designated percentage of rights income (the percentage depending on what’s written in the “head” contract).

However, rights can also be about your global footprint as an author, such as the markets of other languages into which your books can be translated. Licensing translation rights can present lots of opportunities.

2. You, the author, are at the top of the work’s ownership hierarchy

There is a hierarchy of ownership, and at the top is the original author or creator of the work, who is the first owner of the copyright. Below is someone who could own rights by having them assigned to them (through an exclusive or a less valuable non-exclusive license). Then might be someone who doesn’t own anything at all but can still sell rights.

This resonated with me because, as an author starting out, it often feels like you’re begging agents and publishers to read your work, let alone buy it. The idea that when you produce work, you’re the one who can decide which parties have the right to distribute it changed my attitude away from ‘creative beggar’ to ‘someone with a responsibility to shepherd it accordingly’.

3. Look for a publisher and agent who can demonstrate a successful and active rights licensing policy

Duncan Calow, Partner, DLA Piper, pointed out that the basic premise of copyright is that it is something that can be bought and sold like any other property.

He mentioned that one of the oldest and most essential principles in buying and selling rights is to buy in rights as widely as possible and then sell them out as narrowly as possible.

He said that much like how a builder buys a house and then converts that into flats to sell, anyone with copyright wants to maximise the value of their property by selling off parcels of rights to different buyers.

When choosing a publisher or agent, ideally, choose one who can demonstrate an active rights operation.

This way, they’ll be able to sell your book in a variety of ways, depending on the rights being granted in the contract.

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash

4. If you self-publish, sign a contract with the book cover designer

Diane Spivey, Rights and Contracts Consultant, talked about how design can be a tricky field: publishing has moved relatively quickly from being an industry with plenty of in-house designers to one that started using external contractors for design.

When it comes to a book cover, the designer owns the rights until they grant that copyright to you. She mentioned ‘beware the emails slash invoice route’ as that may not be sufficient to convey copyright.

In other words, make sure that there are contracts in place to assign the design rights accordingly: not just an email, then an invoice, but a proper legal contract.

After all, I learned that it could get tricky with illustrated books: if you’re commissioning someone to do illustrations for a book and they’re paid an outright fee, it needs to be very clear what that includes.

What if the illustrations are reused in translations or licensed, or there are new versions? While many arrangements have been made through calls and emails, it’s essential to be clear on the illustrator’s rights and what rights are being passed to the publisher.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

5. If you quote, ask permission — don’t assume ‘fair usage’

According to Wikipedia, “Fair use is a doctrine in United States law that permits limited use of copyrighted material without having to first acquire permission from the copyright holder.” However, American law can be different to British law.

In short, if you’re planning to reproduce other people’s material for commercial use, always request permission. Some people could grant permission free of charge, but it should not be assumed. It’s also important to credit appropriately.

While it’s easy to assume that something published online is up for grabs, the reality is that it’s always better to ask. Also, these days, authors have Google alerts — so there is much more traceability now, and if you’re quoting them, they’re likely to be informed by an email ping.

It was a helpful session to attend as an author, and it only confirmed my view that the downside of self-publishing is taking on all the above (instead of spending time writing).

Before the session, I knew that my understanding of ‘rights’ was limited, but today only showed me how limited. In a world of podcasts, audiobooks, and streaming, it’s more important than ever to recognise that you’re not just selling a book anymore, and you’re not just selling to one audience.



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