| Many lives of a novel
A fictional work can be used in different ways. Authors enjoy full control over how these works are used. When they agree to have their work published, they are giving the publisher the right to use their work in one or more ways. Whether the right is simply to publish the work for the first time as a book or to publish it as many times as the publisher likes and in whatever form he likes, is up to the author and depends on the ter- ms of the contract the two arrive at.
As a general rule, the more rights authors license away, the less control they have over their work and the more money they should be paid for the licences. What are these rights and how should an author assess whether he is getting a fair deal from the publisher/editor' Writers and editors tend to define rights in different ways. But there are some basic rights that authors should be aware of because it is not just the book sales that bring in the money but the bits and pieces that all add up.
So authors should strive to keep as many rights as they can from the outset, or their attempts to resell their work in different ways may be hampered. The copyright law, in effect since January 1978, is pretty vague about who controls what, whether a deal is a one-off or can extend to other editions as well unless specified in the contract between the author and the publisher.
The primary right in publishing is the right to publish the book itself. All other rights — film rights, audio rights, book club rights, electronic rights, foreign translation rights, serialization rights in newspapers and magazines, and rights to territories where the book can be sold — are considered secondary to this right.
In contract negotiations, authors or their literary agents traditionally try to avoid granting publishers subsidiary rights that they feel they are capable of marketing themselves. Publishers too hope to get control over as many sub-rights as they can.
Commonsense dictates that subsidiary rights are best left in the hands of the person most capable of — and interested in — exploiting them profitably. Sometimes this is the author and the literary agent, and sometimes the publisher. But, more and more, it is the agent who swings the deal because he has the experience of selling foreign rights, film rights and the like, and thus brings his authors huge advances.
For instance, none of our authors would have got the advances they did if their agents had not hived off the sub-rights, especially for translations and territories, to different publishers worldwide. Further efforts might be made to sell the rights for a paperback edition, although many contracts now call for hard/ soft deals, in which the original hardback publisher buys the right to also publish the paperback version.
After the publication, the next big thing is film/television rights, especially for romance and mystery. Here is where the big money is and many authors of mass fiction have an eye on the film camera. Because of their potential, authors and agents retain these rights themselves. Serialization is big money in the West, especially for memoirs and gossip, but it hasn’t quite arrived here yet. But it will in the course of time as the print media expands.
The business of rights can be summed up in the simple proposition: the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.