Do You Have the Rights?

Each year I speak with hundreds of people working at publishing houses who are responsible for managing rights. After a typical conversation with them, I almost always come away with the same impression – rights people are busy and have a lot on their plate. To do their job effectively, they need to be organized and have information available to them at a moments notice. Unless they are endowed with a photographic memory, their ability to recall specific contract details is only as good as the database they use. And most publishing houses I’ve encountered have pretty good systems in place to track the important stuff. But the data they have becomes more limited the further back in time they go. I’m sure that’s why I end up being the type of call they are least able to handle. In my business, we make requests to license electronic rights to books published in 2007, books published in 1925 and every year in-between. Guess what contract data is readily available to most rights people?

I can expect to get a pretty quick answer to the question, “Can you let me know if electronic rights are available for a book published in 2005?” I might even get lucky on that question if I’m inquiring about a book published in 2000. Unfortunately, the further back in time I go the less likely I’m able to find out quickly about the rights status of a book. Here’s the type of answer I get from a rights manager when I ask about an “old” book — “Oh, of course the data is available. It’s just down stairs, in file boxes, in the cold, dark, dank basement. And did I mention that no one goes down there anymore?”

1999 to the present: digital sub-rights in your boilerplate

In this digital era, it pays to know what rights you have. And even more importantly, you need to be sure the books you publish today allow you the freedom to create as many flavors as possible. Any book deal you’ve signed in the last five years should already include rights to publish digitally. Be sure your boilerplate language is specific.

If a Picture Paints a Thousand… – license digital rights to photos, artwork, and EVERYTHING!

Be sure your standard contract includes not only e-book rights, but electronic version rights. What’s the difference? E-Books are merely facsimiles of the original print edition. This typically means that all of the content from the book is reproduced in the digital edition. PDF books, audio books, e-books on CD-ROM and those for handheld devices – these are some examples of what a run of the mill e-book is. But when your publishing house wants to exploit their copyrights digitally, why limit yourself to only e-books? By securing electronic version rights, you license the content that didn’t make it to the print edition, but rather ended up on the “cutting room floor”. Chances are it was left there because of reasons specific to the print edition. Those ‘left overs’ might lend themselves well to a digital version of the book which isn’t limited by the normal printed page constraint. Make sure you have the rights to use everything submitted by the author.

The Amendment Paper Trail – travel back in time to secure digital rights

But what about the books published before you had that catch all digital rights clause? Just because you don’t think a lot about these backlisted titles doesn’t mean they can’t be extremely valuable in digital form. Get your contract amendment language together and go treasure hunting. It pays to go back and revisit contracts for the best sellers of yester-year.

Yes, I know this is hard work requiring heavy resources and I don’t mean to minimize the task. The further back you go, the harder it will be to find authors and in some cases, their heirs. Orphaned works are appropriately named – there’s no one left who knows enough about the work to do anything with it and the lack of available data can look like a liability to a publishing house. Set investigative limits. If it looks like you might need to put weeks into the recovery of a copyright, be sure the time you put in equals the return you’ll receive.

Diamonds in the Rough – protect the perennial best sellers

The most logical backlisted books to go after are the best sellers, and I don’t mean just the ones that are in print. An out-of-print book published in 1985 might have stopped showing positive sales numbers by 1990, but that doesn’t mean life can’t be breathed back into the title today in a new digital edition. When a customer becomes a consumer of digital books, a funny thing happens. They tend to want to own a lot of digital books. And those aren’t just your front-list. They want digital editions of the books they loved as a child, or as a student in school. Much in the same way music lovers moved from LPs to cassettes to CD formats, often purchasing the same music over and over again, digital book buyers will be looking for backlisted titles. Guess what that means? Your new ‘digital’ customers can be your old ‘print’ customers. Be sure you have the rights to offer these new products to your lifelong customers.

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