Book publication contracts deserve careful attention because their terms control the rights and obligations of authors and publishers for the life of the relationship between the parties, which can potentially last for decades. Our guide to Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts helps authors to understand common clauses in publication contracts, recognize how the terms might affect their goals for their books, and negotiate for author-friendly variations of those terms.
In this two-part blog series, we apply the lessons from our guide to real-life contract terms and illustrate how authors can consider the implications of contract terms and formulate author-friendly variations that advance their interests. The first post addresses grant of rights clauses, subsidiary rights, and rights reversion. The second post will cover options, non-competes, the look and feel of a work, and assignment of the agreement.
Grant of Rights
Sample Term: “The Author hereby assigns to the Publisher the copyright and all the exclusive rights comprised in the copyright in the Work and all revisions thereof […] during the full term of copyright […] with exclusive authority to dispose of said rights in all countries and in all languages […].”
Why it could be problematic: When an author writes something original and fixes it in a tangible medium, she typically automatically has copyright ownership in the work. Authors should think long and hard about transferring copyright ownership for the life of copyright as they may come to regret this if, for example, their work falls out of print or the rights are not being actively used. The sample “grant of rights” term above hands total ownership and control of the copyright to the publisher, to be exploited by the publisher at its sole discretion for the life of copyright (which currently lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years). Essentially, unless the author regains her rights (more on rights reversion below), the author will not have a say in whether and how the work is made available and used.
How to make it better: Many authors prefer not to turn over ownership of the copyright to the publisher at all. Instead, the author may try to negotiate for a limited term grant, or to give the publisher a nonexclusive license. A nonexclusive license means that the author grants the publisher the ability to do certain activities (such as make copies of the book and distribute them), but the author will still have the ability to allow other publishers to do the same through similar nonexclusive licenses, or even to do those activities on her own. Even if a publisher does not agree to a limited term grant or a nonexclusive license, authors have many options to negotiate to make the grant of rights more nuanced, such as by limiting the geographic scope, including “use it or lose it” clauses, and requesting revert-back clauses. The grant of rights clause can be modified in myriad ways; to learn more, take a look at pages 44-73 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.
Sample Term: “The Author grants to the Publisher full and exclusive right to act as his or her agent in disposing of the following rights and licenses: reprint, in full or in part; book club; serialization; dramatic, operatic, and musical adaptation; radio and television broadcasting; mechanical or electronic reproduction; microfilming and similar techniques; filmstrip production; motion picture and allied rights; and adaptations for commercial use.”
Why it could be problematic: Subsidiary rights are rights that arise from your copyright being used in specific contexts, such as for a movie adaptation or in audiobook form. The term above is especially problematic when you put it in context: This particular clause was found in a contract for a textbook. Is a textbook publisher realistically going to make or license an opera based on an author’s textbook? Authors should be skeptical of contracts that ask for subsidiary rights that the publisher really doesn’t need and is unlikely to exploit.
How to make it better: There’s no one clear way to make a subsidiary rights clause better. Instead, an author should consider and discuss with the publisher what subsidiary rights they each hope to realistically exploit. For example, if a publisher has no ties to the movie industry, but the author or his agent does, then the author could advocate to retain the rights to audiovisual works because the author can actually pursue the goal of getting a movie made. Authors can also limit the duration of these rights, ask for a license-back, or insert “use it lose it” provisions. To learn more about subsidiary rights, review pages 76-94 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.
Sample Term 1: “If the Work (and all conversions, adaptations, ancillaries, derivations and portions thereof) has been declared out of print by the Publisher in the United States, the Publisher may, but shall not be obligated to, offer to reversion rights to the Work to the Author.”
Sample Term 2: “In case Publisher fails to keep the work in print (and for all purposes of this paragraph a Work shall be considered to be in print if it is on sale by Publisher in any edition in any venue, storefront or online, paper or digital […] then this Agreement shall terminate with respect to the Work and all of the rights granted to Publisher with respect to the Work shall revert to Author.”
Why it could be problematic: Reversion rights are important because they give an author the ability to regain control of her book from the publisher if certain conditions are met, such as sales or revenue dropping below a certain threshold or if the book falls out of print. One reason Term 1 is problematic because it leaves the decision of whether to return rights to the author in the sole discretion of the publisher: Even if the book is out of print, the author cannot trigger rights reversion unless the publisher agrees. Term 2 is problematic because the availability of digital versions counts as keeping a book “in print,” it’s possible that the book will never be declared “out of print” if the publisher makes an electronic copy available, even if it hasn’t been selling any copies.
How to make it better: Reversion rights should not be left entirely to the publisher’s discretion; instead, it is better for clauses to include a clear trigger for an author’s right to revert, such as a definition of “out of print” that is tied to concrete terms, like a minimum number of sales or revenue in a specified period. Additionally, it is preferable to eliminate the mere availability of electronic copies as sufficient for a book to be “in print;” again, it is better to link the definition of “in print” to a sales or revenue threshold, for example, rather than the mere availability in any form. To learn more about rights reversion clauses, read pages 231-43 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.
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The examples of covered in this series are just that—examples. Every contract looks a little different, depending on the kind of publisher and the kind of book. Contracts will inevitably have many more clauses that aren’t covered in this series, such as outlining royalty rates or marketing terms. For a deeper dive into contract terms and options for negotiation, be sure to check out Authors Alliance’s guide to Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.
Authors Alliance is grateful to Diana Buck, Copyright Intern, for researching and drafting this post.