Subsidiary Rights: Much More Than a Book, by Donya Dickerson

Most writers who want to be published envision their book in storefronts and on their friends’ coffee tables. They imagine book signings and maybe even an interview on Oprah. Usually the dream ends there — having a book published seems exciting enough. In actuality, a whole world of opportunities exists for published writers beyond seeing their books in print. These opportunities are called “subsidiary rights.”

Subsidiary rights, or sub-rights, are the additional ways that a book — that your writing — can be presented. Any time a book is made into a movie or excerpted in a magazine, a subsidiary right has been sold. If these additional rights to your book are properly “exploited,” you’ll not only see your book in a variety of forms, but you’ll also make a lot more money than you would derive from book sales alone.

Unfortunately, the terminology of subsidiary rights can be confusing. Phrases like “secondary rights,” “traditional splits,” or “advance against royalty” could perplex any writer. And the thought of negotiating the terms of these rights with a publisher is daunting.

Although there are many advantages to working with agents, the ability to negotiate sub-rights is one of their most beneficial attributes. Through her experience, an agent knows which publishing houses have great sub-rights departments. If she knows a house can make money with a right, she will grant that right to the publisher when the contract is negotiated. Otherwise, she’ll keep, or “retain,” certain rights for her clients, which she will try to exploit by selling them to her own connections. In an interview in the 2000 Guide to Literary Agents, writer Octavia Butler said that working with an agent, “is certainly a good thing if you don’t know the business. It’s a good way to hang onto your foreign and subsidiary rights, and have somebody actively peddling those rights, because there were years when I lived off subsidiary rights.”

If you want to work with an agent, you should have a basic understanding of sub-rights for two reasons. First, you’ll want to be able to discuss these rights with your agent intelligently (although you should feel comfortable asking your agent any question you have about sub-rights). Secondly, different agents have more expertise in some sub-right areas than others. If you think your book would make a great movie, you should research the agents who have strong film connections. A knowledge of sub-rights can help you find the agent best suited to help you achieve your dreams.


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