Category Archives: subsidiary rights


On censorship

I don’t often think on the topic, but a recent New Yorker article, coupled with the recent announcement that China is the guest of honor at this year’s BEA Global Market Forum, pretty much demands a philosophical blog post today.

Office politics plays a role in publishing, same as in any other industry. In China, it’s Party politics.

Peter Hessler’s piece in the New Yorker not only sheds some light on the Chinese publishing industry and the extent to which it is controlled by the government, but it also begs an interesting question—one to which I don’t have a confident answer.

Should authors allow their work to be censored if it means bringing their book to a new market and a fresh audience?

I don’t know. As Americans, our freedom of expression valued as highly as it is, our initial reaction is: absolutely not. After all, allowing your manuscript to be censored can be seen as passive endorsement of government propaganda. But when the alternative is not being published, can you really deny an entire country of people your ideas? Change is often incremental, and many publishers in China are doing an admirable job working around the realities of censorship to bring fresh, sometimes controversial literature to the Chinese people.

What do our readers think? Does anyone have experience dealing with such issues?


Sublicenses, the Matryoshka of Publishing

One of my favorite podcasts is Stuff You Should Know, from the people at How Stuff Works.  Each episode hosts Josh and Chuck give a primer on a different subject, on topics as varied as Jim Henson, gambling, sea monsters, cinnamon, boomerangs, The Hum, and leper colonies, and that’s just in the last month.  Sometimes they’re serious.  Sometimes they’re ridiculous.  But they’re nearly always fascinating.

Photo by Salvatore Vuono courtesy of

Photo by Salvatore Vuono courtesy of

While I can’t promise to ever be quite as entertaining, one thing I can do is explain how some of the facets of publishing work.  I’ll start today with sublicenses—something I’m called on to explain fairly regularly—but if there are any other things about publishing you’d like to understand better, give me a topic in the comments and I’ll do my best to explain it or ask a colleague to take it on.

As with most things, there are exceptions to every rule, but here’s how sublicenses typically work:

So what’s a sublicense?  Basically, when you sign a deal with a publisher, you grant them some rights and reserve others to yourself.  (Those others are the ones that your agency would represent for you, which is where my job as Subsidiary Rights Director for DGLM comes in.)  So let’s say you sign a deal with Random House, and in that deal you’d generally give them print book rights and e-book rights, and you’d generally keep multimedia and film/TV rights.  Other things will be a part of the negotiation your agent is doing, like audio rights, translation rights, and the breadth of the territory granted to the publisher in English.  So let’s say you grant translation rights to the publisher as part of the deal.  That means that the publisher is the party empowered to sell those rights to another publisher.  When you do your deal with Random House, that’s a license.  When they sell your French rights to, let’s say, Hachette, that’s a sublicense.

That part is relatively straightforward. The thing that tends to trip people up is the money.  Now in your contract with Random House, terms will be set for how you earn money on that sublicense. Typically, Random House is going to get to keep 25% for their efforts.  The other 75% is for you, but it’s not really going straight into your pocket.  When Hachette pays Random House, 75% of the money goes into your royalty account and works to earn back your advance.  Advance with RH already earned out?  Great, then that money is coming your way soon.  Advance with RH still left to earn back? Then the money isn’t going to leave Random House. The French rights are part of what they bought from you in that advance, so they can use their French deal to earn back that investment.

Think of sublicenses like Russian nesting dolls full of coins:  your deal with Random House is the biggest of the dolls. When that dolls is full of coins—meaning once your royalty account has earned as much as they advanced you—the coins that don’t fit (aka, the amount above the amount previously advanced to you) come spilling out and get paid out to you!*  But inside your deal with Random House is Random House’s deal with Hachette, and that doll starts off empty, too.  Hachette paid an advance to Random House, which added to the coins inside the larger doll, but then the Hachette doll has to fill up with earnings from the French sale of the book.  Once the Hachette doll is full, coins spill into the Random House doll, and if the Random House doll is full, they spill over to you.  And yes, there can be a third doll inside the Hachette doll, where Hachette sublicenses, say, French audio rights.  As you might imagine, the French audio nesting doll is pretty tiny and doesn’t always exist.

So, does that make sublicenses clearer?  Or are you now just wondering why I think nesting dolls have coins inside them?  Any other questions about sublicenses?  And what topic should I tackle next?

*We don’t really pay our clients in coins.  But if they chose to withdraw their money from the bank in coins so they could Scrooge McDuck it up, we would never judge.



Big in Japan (and Germany)

A career in publishing typically involves a lot of twists and turns, both for the professionals like editors and agents, as well as for writers themselves. This weekend, the Times magazine shared the amusing story of David Gordon, a (sorry, David) midlist author who suddenly found that his novel The Serialist was a huge hit in Japan, culminating in a trip to Tokyo where he got the royal treatment from an adoring press.

Reading Gordon’s story, it put me in mind of an author I used to work with at Putnam, Royce Buckingham. Like The Serialist, Royce’s debut novel, Demonkeeper, did well enough to get a second book signed up, but for some reason, the book became a huge hit in Germany. In fact, Royce was commissioned to write two sequels for Random House Germany, which they duly translated into German–at their cost.

So, what’s the takeaway here? Well, for one, I hope it explains why we agents fight to retain foreign rights as much as we can. But I think the larger point is that for authors, you never know where you might find an audience, and in the age of Globalization, it’s a good idea for authors to have the international market in mind–even if the results might feel a little Spinal Tap-ish at times…



All I Want for Christmas

In honor of the holidays, I thought I’d share with you my Christmas wish list:

  • A universal territory schedule: If you have a book deal in English, you might’ve seen a long list of countries in the back of your contract, often labeled Schedule A.  That’s the territory schedule, my nemesis.  You see, the world gets carved up into blocks by the publishers buying rights, so there are a variety of territories you can sell, most often World (which includes translation rights as well), World English, US/Canada, or UK & Commonwealth.  Anything excluded from that is either reserved to the author, licensed exclusively to a second publisher, or part of the Open Market, which is primarily the world’s non-English-speaking countries, where US and UK publishers are typically free to distribute competing editions.  Sounds simple enough, right?

Except that apparently we can’t just agree that when we said UK & Commonwealth, we meant, you know, UK & Commonwealth.  There are the most common exceptions, like Commonwealth Canada going on over to the US side and non-Commonwealth Ireland getting grouped in on the UK side, for proximity reasons.  And then there are the many inane fights I have every year about whether Malaysia is Open Market or Commonwealth.  Hey, guess what debate is easily settled by the Commonwealth of Nations website?  (Fortunately we’re not believers in granting exclusive Europe to UK publishers, because otherwise I’d have to add “Israel is not in Europe” to my list of regular grievances.  This isn’t Eurovision or UEFA, my friends.)  And yet, we must argue these things all the time.  If you want to fight with me about whether or not you should get to sell books in Tristan da Cunha, I need you to fly me there and show me your distribution chain.  I will then contemplate your argument for several days on the beach and get back to you when I’ve decided.  Alternatively, I’d accept a Universal Schedule A that all of us in publishing agree to now, so we can stop having this conversation ad nauseam.  Then anyone who wants to pretend South Africa’s not a Commonwealth country or Iran is will have to say so, up front, when making their offer.

  •  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Popular science and interdisciplinary nonfiction.
  •  Mandatory naptime.  Look, I work in foreign rights, and it’s really important for me to be in tune with cultural differences.  So I’m going to start taking siestas.  I really think it’s going to do amazing things for our list in Spain.
  •  A robot that can be programmed to clear up my office clutter to my exact specifications each night when I leave, because I am very very particular, very very busy, and very very sick of tripping over the books that I knock on the ground each day.
  •  A wall-sized magnetic world map and teensy tiny book cover magnets so that when I sell a book, I can put it in the appropriate country, because how cool would that be?
  •  Peace on Earth, good will towards men.
  •  My two front teeth*
  •  You**


*Worst Christmas song ever?

**Best Christmas song ever.


Clearly this book has a Christian Slater/Minnie Driver vibe

One of the myriad joys of foreign rights (beyond the mixed blessing that many of the people I want/need to contact right now are spending the month on vacation) is getting to spend time perusing foreign book covers.  The ones I love most are the ones that emerge from their packaging to a chorus of “Whaaaat?”s.  So I was pleased to stumble across this delightful piece by Sam Kean in Slate about his efforts to understand how his book on the periodic table of elements wound up with a cover in China that features smiling anime sperm.  Instead of just sharing the joy and confusion with others, as I usually do, he actually tracked down the designer and asked her to explain.  In the end, it actually makes much more sense than I’d have guessed it ever could, and her explanation sums up quite clearly what foreign book covers try to do: “I have to build a bridge to connect our culture to your book!”

But while most publishers are admirably bridging a gap, some make choices that are strangely, impenetrably delightful.  My first experience with this was years ago when Michael handed me a foreign edition of a thriller we represent to send to the client.  Then I noticed something odd.  Christian Slater was on the cover.  With Minnie Driver.  The publisher had, inexplicably, used a totally unrelated movie still as their book cover.  Leaving aside the questionable legality of doing so, it’s a very dubious choice.  Unless Slater and Driver are some kind of cult heroes in Russia, I’m not sure why that was supposed to be a selling point for the novel.  In Holland, one author’s books are stunningly gorgeous, designed just for that market.  Her publisher always asks her opinion before finalizing the cover, which is actually quite unusual in foreign publishing.  The author’s reaction to the latest cover draft was something along the lines of: “I love it, it’s beautiful.  I really don’t understand why they keep putting wolves on the covers, since there’s nothing remotely wolf-like in the books.  But don’t tell them, because I think the covers are great anyway.”

Book covers are, if nothing else, a glimpse into what the publisher has decided the book can be successfully marketed as.  In foreign publishing, sometimes things get lost in translation, but at times others are gained.  Like a wolfish Minnie Driver subtext the author could never have imagined.


A few words on film adaptations

Before I became a book agent, I worked in film and tv development for 7 years in New York, first for PolyGram Filmed Entertainment and then for Hearst Entertainment. My job was to be the middle man (or woman, in this case) between the film companies in LA and London (when I worked for PolyGram, they had international companies like Working Title on board) and the book publishers. The idea was to scout for book projects that could be adapted into film or television properties. It was fun work back then because Hollywood was still paying big dollars for the right project, and there existed a cottage industry in New York of film scouts like myself who were funded by the studios and whose job was to get their hands on as much material as possible. Perks included expense accounts, movie screenings, and first looks at books in manuscript form. The hope was that a book wouldn’t be missed and snatched up by someone else, even one that might not ever become a blockbuster franchise, which is mostly what Hollywood looks for today. Thinking back, it makes me wonder if a book like The English Patient would have even been made as a film today. I like to think yes, and I suppose it’s possible, especially since the book won The Booker Prize, but I’m really not so sure.

One of my most memorable book-to-film projects back then was Lorenzo Carcaterra’s Sleepers. It was a big deal book that had been kept secret until the film agent was ready to submit it wide to producers. When they did, it was literally a race to get to the agent’s east and west coast offices to read the book immediately. All of us wildly locked ourselves in our offices and read into the night. The next day there was a heated auction, and at the end of it, one of our producers at PolyGram nabbed the rights. There was controversy later about the believability of the book (this was long before A Million Little Pieces, but a lot of the same questions applied), the movie wound up being good but not great, and from what I remember, a commercial disappointment compared to the book’s success, but the process to get it to screen was exciting.   I’ve been thinking about this lately because of the recent success of Captain America, not based on a book, but 70 years worth of comics. This piece from the Writer’s Guild of America about the writers who adapted the film version is worth reading if you’re into this stuff. It’s amazing to think these two talented guys, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, were able to extract the elements from so many years of history and turn them into a modern day commercial blockbuster film. Good writing is good writing, and it’s impressive when it’s done in book form, or for film.   The general consensus is that the book is always better than the movie, and I think that’s usually true. But there are some wonderful screen adaptations that stand on their own, like The Wizard of Oz, or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (based on Road Dah’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), or Gone With the Wind. I’m curious to know what your favorite book-to-film adaptations are. Please share!


Intellectual Property vs. "Cultural Commons"

by Jessica

Some years ago, shortly after I moved from New York to Egypt, I was invited to participate with fellow publishing professionals in a seminar on intellectual property rights, hosted by the Cairo Book Fair. The discussion swirled around licensing translations into and out of Arabic, the plight of authors in the Arab world (who, no matter how successful, rarely make enough money to give up their day jobs) and the importance of combating piracy. Therefore it caught me by surprise when one of the participants—presumably a fellow publisher—raised his hand and pointed out, with all due respect, that intellectual property law in general, and copyright law in particular, was just one more way in which wealthy first-world nations turned a profit at the expense of poorer developing ones.

I was thunderstruck.

Although I’d heard folks in the United States—generally my tech-savvy acquaintances—bat around the notion that “knowledge wants to be free, dude,” I imagined that this applied mostly to shareware, assorted wikis, and other Wired magazine fare. Somehow, up until that moment, I’d failed to see the connection this notion has to the business in which I work, which is, of course, predicated on the idea that knowledge, at least in book form, does not wish to be free. It wants a retail price, a percentage of which (7.5% for trade paperbacks, 10-15% for hardcovers, and still tbd as far as e-books are concerned) should be given to the author.

At that seminar in Cairo, it had never even occurred to me that copyright could be regarded as anything other than capital-G Good. Intellectual property law is, after all, what allows writers to write—the knowledge that their material is protected, that they can profit by its success, that their words or ideas cannot be distorted or stolen, that writing for a living is, in fact, possible. Not easy, not likely, but possible. I’d never so much as imagined that a counter-argument existed, much less thought about ways in which intellectual property law might be seen as vehicle of exploitation. But in developing markets, the cost of commissioning a translation and paying even a modest licensing fee can make publishing a given project untenable. And of course, the issue is not just with books: Powerful pharmaceutical companies control the patents to drugs that are most acutely needed in desperately poor countries, the same is true for most all scientific and creative output—much is controlled by relatively rich entities—whether countries or corporations.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking to toss out the baby with the bath water. I’m a staunch defender of copyright; it goes with the territory of being an agent. But I’d like to think I’m a little more critical—or at least open-minded–about the role intellectual property law plays in a complex, global, and (with apologies to Tom Friedman) not entirely flat world. Which is why I have been particularly interested to dig into Lewis Hyde’s Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership. There’s a great (and unusual) graphic review in the Barnes and Noble review , plus an excellent non-graphic discussion in the New York Times Book Review. Hyde cites copyright law (which presently stands at the author’s lifetime, plus 70 years) as an area in which “enclosure,” i.e. fencing off areas of science, literature, innovation, etc. for commercial gain, has won at the expense of our “cultural commons,” areas of shared knowledge that are essential to the growth of a society. He does believe that artists should own their work (whew!), but questions how long that period should last. He illustrates his point with true stories drawn from agribusiness, pharmaceuticals and even the music industry. He is particularly keen to cite the ideas of the founding fathers, who, he argues, were more or less in agreement with Thomas Jefferson that “ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man.”

Sounds good in theory, but how does this play out in practice? How do we see that writing, or creative output in general, is both fostered and rewarded? That the publishing industry does not collapse? I sure don’t have the answers, but given the fact that e-books (and initiatives like Google Books and Project Gutenberg) can aid and abet the Jeffersonian spread of ideas in unprecedented ways, it’s worth mulling over.

What do you think?


The book stays in the picture

by Lauren

There was some great debate in the comments when I tackled foreign rights, so let’s move on to another sub right.  It seems like this is the perfect week to talk about film, since Variety just did a piece on the current state of book-to-film, complete with quotes from Jane!  (I always enjoy the Variety lingo–only in LA would we be referred to as a “Gotham-based” agency.  Clearly Batman was rights director before me. )

So we’ve already talked about foreign, which takes up the most time and generates the most deals, but film and television is the big one on a per deal basis in terms of money. On the one hand, a big film means big money for the author (though as Jane points out, not as big as it used to be).  That said, the percentage of books that ever reach the screen is tiny. Of those that don’t, a slightly larger percentage will have the rights bought but will never be made. Another slightly larger bunch will be optioned–meaning a studio or production company has the right to try to get the funding to outright buy the rights to the material. Options, however, usually lapse before any significant progress is made.

I’ve heard it said that the ideal situation for the author is for the option producer to get enough traction to keep optioning and eventually buy the rights, but never make the movie.  Though I don’t know how many authors would really want to lose the upside—significantly inflated booksales—to get rid of the downside—a corrupted version of the story they wrote making it into the world.

To BEA or not to BEA

by Jane

So, as we’ve already mentioned, last week was Book Expo, and it took place mid-week for the first time in its history (I believe) and was shortened from three and a half to two days of exhibits with an additional meeting day. The question this raises for me is how relevant is BEA anymore; is it necessary and will it continue?

Historically this annual meeting was known as the American Books Sellers Association (ABA) meeting. It began in the basement of the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., and was held annually—initially over Memorial Day Weekend. The convention’s purpose was for book publishers to present their fall publishing lists to bookstore owners who would actually place their orders on the floor. Those in attendance from the publishing companies were mainly sales people with some executives making an appearance now and then; editors weren’t included.

Over the years, the ABA convention grew larger and larger. More and more publishers added more and more staff and they began to build larger and larger exhibits. The ABA outgrew the Shoreham and was moved to a convention center in Washington and then began traveling to a different city in different parts of the country each year.

The convention has been held everywhere in the continental U.S. from Chicago, to Los Angeles and Anaheim, to San Francisco, Las Vegas, New Orleans and even Miami (I remember that ABA well—for many reasons, it was a disaster). And each year it grew, with publishers spending more and more money on their exhibits, and having hugely lavish parties to entertain booksellers, authors and agents.

Slowly but surely foreign publishers began to participate and the ABA became a rights fair as well, sort of a mini-Frankfurt (before the London Book Fair grew as large as it now is).

Then as the chains became all powerful and publishers took orders on fall books from these huge accounts before the ABA (or at least outside of the convention), that reason for the meeting became irrelevant. Smaller accounts also started to order less at the meeting and more in other ways and at other times.

Publishers began to realize that the enormous sums of money spent on exhibits, on parties and on travel could not be justified. Displays began to get smaller; some publishers skipped years coming and eventually the exhibit was sold to an organization that became Book Expo. Now, it is a truncated and less interesting event.

My question is what really happens at BEA nowadays? Sure, it is wonderful to see old friends, but the individual exhibits are so small now that one can’t even find the fall books one is looking for. Last week I saw very little activity at the parts of the convention occupied by foreign publishers and the exhibits were downsized from two floors to one in the Javits Center. Very little actual business in terms of the initial book ordering is done anymore and with the other rights fairs around the world, those sold at BEA for the most part are also insignificant.

As I wandered around the floor last week at BEA 2010, I honestly thought to myself that the money still being spent by publishers on this meeting could be much better allocated toward finding new and effective ways to sell books in an age when our business is changing enormously and very quickly.

I would love to know what those of you who have participated in BEA in the past think about all of this.


Happy BEA!

by Lauren

By the time this posts, I’ll already be at the DGLM table in the International Rights Center at the Jacob Javits Center, doing my duty at Book Expo America as the agency’s subsidiary rights director. Today is the beginning of American publishing’s largest trade show and, for me, a three-day extravaganza of back-to-back meetings with foreign publishers, sub-agents, scouts, audio editors, and film producers. I’ll leave it to one of my colleagues to give you the BEA scoop in another post, but in the meantime, I thought it might be a good time to talk subrights.

I offered a basic rundown of how subrights works a couple years ago, but maybe now would be a good time to talk in more depth. Since foreign rights take up the bulk of my time—and will account for most of my meetings this week—why don’t we start there? If you’d like to know more about audio, film, and serial, just let me know below, and I’ll tackle them in future posts.

Foreign is the biggest rights market. When a book sells to an American publisher, there are more or less three options: North American, world English, or world. Occasionally a book sells separately to Canada and the US, but that’s not the norm unless the author is Canadian, and even then, it really depends on the type of book.

In a North American rights deal, the American publisher will distribute their edition in English in the US, Canada, the US territories, and the open market. The open market is the term for those territories where English-language rights are fair game. American and British publishers have essentially carved up the world into three sections: US exclusive territories; UK & Commonwealth exclusive territories; and everywhere else. Occasionally, there’s a land grab from one side or the other insisting that they must have exclusive rights to a particular place (BEA 2006 featured a panel on the whole kerfuffle). I’ve seen British publishers insist that they should get Europe exclusively because they’re…nearby? And I’ve seen US publishers insist that India’s not in the British Commonwealth. The part of it that always perplexes me is that the major players on both sides are generally owned by the same parent companies. The open market is the territories in which both the US and the UK publishers are allowed to sell. In the end, all that matters from the authors’ and agents’ perspectives is that the publishers’ dispute doesn’t prevent a sale to both territories and that the book is widely available. The notion that an island nation that no one involved could pick out on a map is a deal breaker is really quite silly. Fortunately, it usually works out.

In a world English deal, this is blessedly not our problem, though unfortunately we also lose the chance to do a separate deal in the UK. This typically means that the US publisher has a UK arm that they feel will publish or distribute the book well. All non-English rights, though, are controlled by the author, which means that we’re trying to place those where possible.

In a world rights deal, it’s all—English and every other language—in the publisher’s hands.
The way that foreign rights deals are typically done is through a network of subagents in the major territories throughout the world. In countries like the UK, Germany, Japan, etc., there are agencies that represent American publishers and agents, and those are the people I work most closely with on foreign rights deals. Our subagents represent the full list of rights that we represent on behalf of our authors in their territories, though of course not all books will sell in all countries.

Sometimes, books don’t sell internationally at all—it’s often said that such books “don’t travel.” Books that depend largely on pre-existing interest in the author or subject, for example, are less likely to sell internationally if that pre-existing interest isn’t also international. A novel by a small publisher in the US is more likely to sell than a bestselling American cookbook by a celebrity chef who is not on TV outside the US market. This is one of the things I love most about foreign rights: the rules are totally different and sometimes the little guy in the US market gets to be a bigshot elsewhere. As part of that, there’s a lot of information to manage: true crime sometimes sells in Australia, Germany and Japan, but rarely elsewhere unless the case has international reach; memoirs are tough in Spain; and you can’t typically sell to a foreign country those things that they feel they do better than the US. For example, literary fiction is tough to sell in France, but commercial novels are easier. (The French don’t exactly clamor for American attempts at high culture.) Horror’s tough to sell in Asia, because their standards for what’s frightening are quite different than the American one: think of The Ring as compared to an American slasher flick.

I really love these little glimpses into foreign cultures, and it’s always really satisfying when I choose a book to highlight for a particular subagent or publisher and get a sale. And it’s a huge pleasure to work directly with clients of the agency who aren’t my own, some of whom I’ll be lucky enough to see for a bit at the fair!

Any questions?