Madeleine Robins August 17th, 2006
I have lately overheard questions about publishing and “selling” your work to publishers that made my hair stand on end. The scary thing isn’t the folks asking the questions (no one is born with an instinctive understanding of subrights sales and escalator clauses), it’s the people giving authoritative wrong answers. Some of these people have clearly been misinformed, others may be giving their best guess as if it were Holy Writ, and some, I fear, are deliberately misleading.
For example, I recently heard a guy on the radio insisting that it was “publishing practice” to buy your copyright at the time of a book sale–PublishAmerica, he said, was unusual in that the author retained copyright. Wrong, wrong, wrong. And there’s more of this sort of disinformation out there. It makes my teeth hurt. So, in my person as former-assistant-to-the-publisher of a midsize national publisher with a significant SF and Fantasy line, as well as writer, I’m going to attempt, now and then, to offer some true gen.
Like, for instance, what are you selling when you sell a book or story? Outside of Work-for-Hire (which I will explain at another time, if anyone is interested) you’re not really selling, you’re leasing the right of publication to a publisher. In most cases the rights you’re leasing are pretty clearly defined. Thus, paragraph 1 of my most recent book contract says:
Grant of Rights
The author hereby grants exclusively to the Publisher the following rights in and to the work of fiction tentatively entitled Petty Treason (the “Work”) during the full term of copyright (and all renewals and extensions thereof) throughout the world; the sole and exclusive right to print or otherwise reproduce, publish, distribute and sell the Work in the English language in book form and the sole and exclusive subsidiary rights specified in paragraph X, with the exclusive right to license any or all of such rights.
There’s a mouthful. And it’s the heart of the contract. Essentially, it says that the Publisher is leasing the right to publish and distribute my book in English anywhere in the world. It means that as long as the book stays in print they retain that right through the life of the copyright (there’s a later paragraph that states that if the book ceases to be in print after X number of years, I can ask them to reprint or revert–that is, put it back into print or return the rights to you to sell elsewhere). It also means that the publisher has whatever subrights I’ve specified in paragraph X–microfilm rights, the right to the right to publish in translation (Cuban rights! Transylvanian rights!) or make a movie or a video game.
The rest of the contract (13 pages of it) is spent defining and expanding on that first paragraph: what am I physically delivering to the Publisher? When should I deliver it? How much, and when, am I going to be paid? What subrights are included in that first paragraph? What happens if I default in some way? What happens if the Publisher defaults in some way? How many free author’s copies do I get (yes, it gets that specific). But the grant of rights is the part people talk about when they say they’ve “sold” a book.
And for what it’s worth–and I’ve worked in publishing off and on for 15 years, and been a writer for (ulp) 25 years–having the book copyrighted in your name is not (as the guy on the radio implied) a publishing rarity. It’s SOP unless there’s some other factor involved (you’re writing a media tie in novel, or the copyright is being held by your off-shore tax shelter, or some other exotic condition).
I can continue my contract exigesis, if anyone’s interested.