The Right(s) Way: Rights in Publishing Masterclass

Posted on September 10, 2021 in Uncategorized

On the 26th July 2021, Andrew Sharp ran a workshop for SYP Scotland all about Rights in a Publishing House – what are they, and why are they so important?


Andrew is the former Group Rights Director at Hachette’s Children’s Group, and has over 20 years experience in the publishing industry.


First, he took us through what rights are. There are primary rights, which is the right to publish the piece of work – and are transferred from author to publisher generally. What we were focussing on were subsidiary rights, which are slightly different. Subsidiary rights (or subs) are generally any rights related to any kind of adaptation of the work – the most common of these are translation rights, or even TV show/movie/film rights. However, the only real limit to a potential subsidiary right is imagination – if you can think of it, then there is a right that can be licensed out or sold. For example, The Witcher series was a book series before it became a game and then a Netflix TV show. A book could even be turned into a musical (that’s how Cats the musical started – it was a book of poems by TS Eliot!). But some other examples are:

  • Audio (the right to turn a book into an audio book)
  • Educational
  • Electronic
  • Film/TV/theatrical
  • Graphic novel/comic
  • Hardback and paperback rights (these are quite uncommon now)
  • Large print
  • Merchandising rights
  • Serial rights
  • TRanslation
  • The right to publish in the USA (even though this is an English-speaking country, it is a different territory, so you need to have the rights in order to sell there).


What a rights agent does is license (or sell) these rights out to other publishers or companies for a set amount of time in exchange for money. This is why rights are so important – a good rights deal at the right time to the right company can be very lucrative for the publisher. But there are reasons other than financial reasons that rights deals are important, which Andrew explained. The main financial reasons are to increase the revenue and profit on that title, to recoup the investment made in the authors (normally through advances) and illustrators’ work, and, although less common, making a co-edition of a title provides economy of scale on print orders. But beyond a financial reason to sell rights, there is author prestige to consider – it makes an author feel good to know that their work is being sold around the world and makes them feel like the publisher values their work. It also helps with branding for an author, which is key in children’s books where known names or brands have huge selling power.


But after that introduction, Andrew got down to the meat of the workshop – what are the most important things to consider in a rights contract and how should they be handled. You need to consider the territory that a work is being licensed to, what the advance is, what and where royalties go, and how often they’re paid, any sub-rights that may be needed to be licensed, fees for the use of artwork (if it is an illustrated book) and who/when are the files to be supplied, when payments are made and how to invoice, how long the license term is, whether there is an option on future books (in the case of a series) and whether the licensee needs to get author and/or agent approval before any changes are to be made. That’s a long list, but does demonstrate how much goes into a rights deal, and how many things need to be considered before allowing another publishing company to use your work.


Andrew then gave us some important notes about a publishing contract while taking us through an actual publishing contract (which most of us had never seen before, despite quite a few doing publishing masters or even working in the publishing industry). To name a few – put your definitions very early in the contract, and be clear about exactly what each term means so nobody is unclear about what the contract is actually setting out. Also, make sure to put in when the accounting period is to happen, and how long a licensee can continue selling excess stock after the license term has ended. Another important thing to look at in a contract is the schedule – when files have to be delivered, when a license starts and ends, when the royalties are to be paid etc. Again, practically, this keeps things clear for both parties about what the expectations from each other are.


To finish, we had a Q&A where we covered a wide range of topics about rights and how to get a job working with them. Highlights included that having a legal background is not the be all and end all for getting into rights so don’t be afraid to go for it, even if you’ve never seen a contract before in your life. And Andrew made us pledge, when you do get a role in any publishing job and you are the junior of the office – never refer to yourself as ‘just’ the junior – the department would not run without your assistance and you are making a difference. A really rather motivational way to end a really interesting and educational workshop. Come back any time, Andrew!