Demystifying Contracts #2: Novels – Territories

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This will be my third installment about contracts. For reference you can also refer to:

As we learned in #1 you never (or shouldn’t ever) transfer your copyright to another. Instead you grant permission for another entity to publish a specified work, for a given length of time, in defined formats, to explicit territories. For today’s posts I’m going to primarily focus on an author in the US because, well, that’s what I know about. If you are from outside the states, maybe this will apply to you, but I really have no idea.

In general, most contracts will be for one of the following:

  • World Rights
  • World English Rights
  • North American English Rights

World Rights

For a debut author, World Rights is the most commonly offered territory because it puts the most power in the publisher’s hands. Basically what this means is that you are giving the right to the publisher to control the work everywhere in the world and in all languages. I personally would never sign a World Rights contract, it just takes too much of the power out of my hands and puts it into others that may not be as aggressive as I am about pursuing foreign translations. By signing “World Rights” you can’t even participate in the process. What languages are signed, and for how much, isn’t something you have a say in.

The loss of control is enough to make me shy away from World Rights, but what makes matters worse is that any foreign deals that are struck you’ll lose a significant amount of revenue, usually about half.  Why?  Well because by signing World Rights any foreign sales will be treated as a subsidiary right, which means any revenue that comes in is split between the author and the publisher. 50/50 is a common split for foreign languages so the publisher will earn half of each deal right off the top.

I’ve sold several hundred thousand dollars worth of foreign language translations. If I had sold World Rights, I would have more than six-figures leave my pocket and go directly to the publisher.

World English

Basically this takes foreign language versions “off the table” and leaves them with the author. The publisher still has the exclusive right to sell the books worldwide, but only in the English language. I’m published through Orbit (the fantasy imprint of Hachette) and Orbit has both a UK and  a US branch. The two contracts I’ve signed with Orbit have been for World English.  I felt comfortable with this arrangement with Orbit because while it wasn’t a “guarantee” that Orbit UK would pick up the books, probability was high (and proved to be the case).  According to my agent Orbit really wouldn’t consider anything that didn’t include both US and UK together.  I do know a number of houses seem to sell their UK rights to Orbit.  For instance,  Anthony Ryan (formerly self-published) was picked up by Penguin who is releasing his book Blood Song in the US.  they have sold the UK right to Orbit who will release that title overseas.

North American English

If given the choice, I would go this route because it provides more flexibility. For instance you could self-publish your works for sale everywhere other than the United States and Canada, or you could sell the UK rights in a separate deal for additional money. I suspect that whether a publisher will consider just North American or will want World English is going to vary from imprint to imprint.

Affects on Advance & Negotiations

Generally the more rights transferred, the larger the advance. It’s not reasonable for a publisher to pay the same advance for North American English as they would for World English. Personally, I think it makes a lot of sense to make it quite clear before submission that this is for English rights only. That’s exactly what my agent did.  I’m fortunate in that she is primarily a foreign rights agent so she knows the importance of retaining the translation rights.  If you don’t do this, then it is quite possible that the publisher will try to reduce the advance if they don’t have rights in certain territories. Personally, I say it’s worth the reduced advance for more control (and the possible additional revenue).  After  all if you earn out the advance, then the amount that it was really doesn’t matter as your income is based on your royalty numbers and  the advance is just an “initial loan.”

First Rights Not What They Used to be

For magazines, FNASR (First North American Serial Rights) are the all important right that most magazines focus on. Usually they don’t like being “the second” to put out a work so they have historically looked for this right, and still do. Those that have been in the business a long time will often bring up that if a work had been previously self-published it is essentially “dead” as far as agents and publishers are concerned. While this may have been true at one time, it is definitely not true today. In fact many agents are actually keeping tabs on the top-selling self-published authors and signing them when they can. In many ways self-publishing is becoming the “minor leagues” and authors like myself are being published not despite our prior self-publishing, but because of it. My Riyria Revelations books sold well through self-publishing (about 70,000 copies) but they have sold even better (180,000) since being republished by Orbit. Keep in mind that what publishers are most concerned about is risk, and author with a proven following represents a significantly smaller risk than one whose work has never been read before.

Conclusion

Keeping as much of the rights in your control is always, in my opinion, the best approach. Publishers are always going to try to grab the most rights as they can (and pay the least amount in the process) but you still have the power to sign or walk away. An author on their own will have little leverage and one of the best reasons for having an agent is for them to wrestle these rights on your behalf. Knowing what you are signing up for, and what you lose is always the best approach when dealing with contracts.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Well, as usual, Michael, you give a reader a lot to think about. I'm curious about your comment: sign or walk away.

    I wonder how often you walk away…or do you just renegotiate? Seems like trying to renegotiate could be a necessary skill set in getting what you want in the first place…and an entire subject of later discussion.

    Anyway…thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    JJayJ

    • You have to know very firmly where the line in the sand is. It is also like a gun, you don't point it if you aren't prepared to pull the trigger. The non-compete that I had in my original contract was a potential career killer and even though my agent assured me that they are hardly ever enforced, I wasn't willing to live with that dagger over my head. It wasn't a "threat" that I would walk if it wasn't changed it as a "fact." So bottom line – be ABSOLUTELY sure if you play this card that you really will follow through – nothing will hurt you more from a future negotiation standpoint then saying something is non-negotiable and then later recanting.

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