Spotlight on Book Publication Contracts: Shaping Your Grant of Rights

Posted October 30, 2018

Shelf with colorful books and Authors Alliance logo on blue background
In our Spotlight on Book Publication Contracts series, we are shining a light on the ways that authors can negotiate for publication contract terms that help them make and keep their books available in the ways they want. This series is based on the information, strategies, and success stories in our guide to Understanding and Negotiating Publication Contracts. Be sure to check out the online or print version of our guide for more details on these and other strategies to help you meet your creative and pragmatic goals.

The grant of rights is the heart and soul of your publication contract. It specifies what rights in your work you are giving to your publisher and what your publisher can do with these rights. These rights can be broad (e.g., the right to print and sell copies of your work anywhere in the world, forever) or they can be narrow (e.g., the right to sell a limited edition in a specific market for a set period of time).

Last week, we featured contract terms that authors can use to form a publication contract that accommodates open access options. This week, we are sharing more ways you can shape your publication contract to retain some control over your rights, either by limiting the grant of rights or by securing the right to approve or be consulted about how your rights are used.

Limiting the grant of rights

One way you can help ensure your work is available in the ways you want is to negotiate for changes to the grant of rights. This is especially important if holding onto certain rights is important to you for personal or professional reasons, if your publisher is unlikely to be able to exploit certain rights, or if you (or your agent) have another opportunity lined up to use certain rights.

In last week’s post, we shared how authors can use non-exclusive licenses or limited-term grants to limit their grant of rights clauses. Another way to soften the grant is through a “use it or lost it” clause, also called a “revert-back” clause. Under these types of clauses, if your publisher doesn’t use or license a specific right within a set period of time, the right reverts back to you. This is a powerful tool that gives you or your agent another opportunity to use or license rights in the event the publisher is not able to actively exploit them.

Success Story: Howard Zaharoff, a literary attorney interviewed for Authors Alliance’s guide to Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts, worked with an author who wrote a book that had great potential to be turned into a movie. The author was therefore hesitant to sign over motion picture rights for fear the publisher would not exploit them. But the publisher also saw the potential for a Hollywood hit and was keen to try to sell movie rights. To resolve this tension, Zaharoff helped the author secure a “use-it-or-lose-it” provision that satisfied both parties: The publisher was given three years to place the movie rights, but if the publisher did not do so in this timeframe, the author could reclaim the rights.

For other ways to limit the grant of rights, including limiting the scope of the rights granted, asking for a license-back clause, and reserving rights not granted, see pages 63-74 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.

Securing approval or consultation rights

Sometimes, it makes sense to license rights to your publisher, but you might still want to have some say in how your rights are used. “Approval” clauses give authors the opportunity to review and approve decisions before they are made by the publisher (often subject to the condition that your approval will not be unreasonably withheld).

Success Story: An author interviewed for Authors Alliance’s guide to Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts wanted to maintain some control over the development of the audiobook version of her book and its adaptation into a screenplay. After explaining to her publisher that it was particularly important to ensure the integrity of the dialect and voices of her characters, her publisher agreed to give her the right of approval over the licensing of these subsidiary rights.

Another way to have a say in how your rights are used is through a “consultation” right, which gives you the opportunity to discuss decisions with your publisher before decisions are made about how your work is used. Consultation rights don’t give authors the same level of control as approval rights since the publisher still has the final say, but they provide an opportunity to discuss any concerns with the publisher before decisions are made.

Finally, don’t overlook “notice” provisions, which require your publisher provide timely notice of any uses of your work, including licensed uses by third parties.

For more on approval, consultation, and notice rights, see pages 91-94 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.