GUEST POST: Independent Authors Need to Know Their Rights | Tom Chalmers

If you have been in or around the book industry over the last year, you cannot have missed the rise of the independent author. There’s a new story every day: more authors going indie, more services for indie authors, and more indie authors selling more books.
 
There are some fantastic stories of authors who have independently published with great success. And there are also lots of stories of authors who haven’t found the success they were looking for – or, worse, have been taken advantage of because they didn’t fully understand the intricacies of the industry. Either way, let’s take a look at the detail.
 
How do we quantify success?
 
Is it seeing the book published exactly as the author always wanted it? Gaining a high profile? Commercial achievement? The first starts and ends with production, which is something for a different article, but with the second and third – one would assume – it is a combination of marketing and sales.
 
But, if we were to ask an independent author where they expected their income to come from, I would bet a great deal on hearing some or all of the following – Amazon, ebook sales, online sales, selling books at events, my local bookshop… All these are viable routes, but there is a key revenue stream that generates many millions, if not billions, of pounds every year for publishers, which is being overlooked by the independent author.
 
Licensing
 
Indie authors don’t just own a potentially valuable book, they own the rights to their work (or at least should, ED) and these can be licensed to publishers and other companies, within their own country, but also in other countries around the world. Rights may not be a physical product, but they can hold within them a huge and renewable revenue stream.
 
Rights can be licensed to produce the same book, in English, into different territories around the world – whether US, Australia or India. But rights can also be licensed for the book to be published and translated into different languages – French, Spanish, German and back to India – Hindi, Marathi, and many more besides.
 
And we can go beyond the book. Everyone would love that film deal – and they can happen (at the 2012 Academy Awards two thirds of the ‘best picture’ nominees were adaptations of books) – but what about adaptations for TV or radio, selling serialisation rights to a newspaper or magazine, audio or large print editions, book clubs or digest rights?
 
The list goes on and more licensing opportunities are developing as technology progresses. Apps are a prime example of this – there are technology companies keenly looking for new projects and ideas to stay ahead, many taking their inspiration from books, but who even knew what an app was as little as ten years ago?
 
If I said all of the above to an indie author I would again be confident taking a bet – if I was a betting person – on a reply along the lines of ‘I don’t have the experience or contacts to do this, so I’m going to focus on the book first and see how things go from there.’
 
But that’s the wrong approach – on two counts. First, you don’t need experience and a full contact list. When I started my first publishing business, I did so from an internet shop and with no business experience. I heard I should look into rights and I built up a contact list – a long and painful but ultimately important process – of as many publishers around the world as possible. This process took a couple of days. I then emailed each of the publishers individually – probably at least a couple more days worth of work. When I received replies with interest, I sent them copies of the book I was trying to sell the rights to. Then I kept an ordered database, and where there was interest I kept chasing – not harassing, just regular checks on whether there was news yet.
 
The result was that I sold the rights to the book in seven different editions and four languages. And as the cheques came in, the importance and value of rights licensing was permanently etched into my memory – rights business conducted by speaking to huge companies from my living room.
 
It was this experience and our on-going rights business over the last eight years that led me to an idea. It quickly became our latest venture, IPR License. Rights business is even simpler logistically than it was then. The rights you own can be listed online for worldwide publishers to find when they have the right gap on their lists. Samples can be viewed online or sent by email. Work can be promoted to publishers and other companies worldwide at the click of a button. Not even a postage stamp is required!
 
And coming back briefly to the second reason authors shouldn’t hold back on licensing their work: indie authors don’t have to wait for their books to be in print. At the very second that book idea leaves your head and arrives on paper or screen, you own intellectual property. And it is your intellectual property you are licensing.

 
While judgement will come down to quality (so I’d advise showing a fully edited manuscript you are happy with to potential licensees) as much as market potential, rights business can start well in advance of the book being published and before it’s even in book form. In fact, a large portion of the rights business of my publishing companies happens pre-publication. And what better to include on the cover than a note saying rights already sold in… to be adapted to… as serialised in…
 
And, as an added bonus, the money starts to arrive on signature of the deal ensuring bills are paid while you’re waiting for publication. But you don’t only get a cheque, or hopefully cheques from the deal – you get a company (potentially several) investing in, promoting and selling your work. Therefore, coming back to what quantifies success; you’re not only ticking the sales box, but also helping to build that profile.
 
Are you still an independent author? Yes, you are. But now you have the power of established and hopefully successful companies behind your work – and not only are you not forking out large fees for marketing services, but they are paying for the pleasure of using your work and it is in their interest – having invested in it – to make sure it’s a success.
 
So, it’s clear this is something that should be central to any indie author from the start of the process to the end. But how? Here are five steps I would suggest to help get you started:
 
  1. List the rights you have in your work – start with those listed above and any further you think are relevant. If you have a contract with a publisher or any other form of licensing agreement, check whether you still own the rights. Note here: always read your contracts and make sure you aren’t signing over rights you haven’t discussed. In our few months at IPR License, we’ve met several authors who used self-publishing companies only to find out they’d signed over world rights for what was essentially a UK publishing package, meaning they can’t take advantage of selling international rights themselves. There are several organisations around who can advise on author contracts. If you’re in the UK, the Society of Authors is a good place to start.

  2. Think about why each particular right would appeal and why – next to each right you have listed, write why you think it would appeal in different territories, languages, formats etc as appropriate (think about the places that feature in your book, the origins of your character, anything that might connect your work to other countries). This will help you see where most value may be held and to be able to prioritise, but also will be helpful for when you hopefully start speaking to interested parties.

  3. Finish and edit your manuscript – have this ready to be emailed or uploaded to your rights-selling platform. Also save separately the initial sample you may want to use to give potential licensees a taste of your work – generally speaking, this should be the first 3-4 chapters.

  4. Make your work and rights visible – if using a digital platform, this means uploading and adding all possible information, previews, and rights available. Also ask that your book be put forward for any platform bulletins or other promotions. If you’re going direct then start generating a list and begin the contacting process – remain professional and accept that rejections are going to come.

  5. Keep available information and interested parties updated – should anything major happen – i.e. an award, great review, significant sales figures or other rights sold – then keep the information up to date and don’t be afraid to send friendly reminders to anyone who has expressed interest. Again, not constant pressing, but it is often news of other rights being sold or the success of a book that can push a considering party to make their move and make an offer.
And a final point on offers and signing a deal (there is enough here for an entirely new article so I’ll keep it brief), but the standard rules apply – if you are not sure what you are selling or what you are selling it for, then don’t sell. And make sure you’ve read and understood the contract. But the really fantastic thing about international deals is that they tend to be short term (often around 5 years but this can vary) meaning, while advances may be modest, you get your initial advance, but may get another in 5 years’ time if all is going well, and if it is going well, then maybe you’ll see royalties too!
 
To work out what your rights may be worth, do your research. Look at the trade press to find out what deals are happening and where; speak to publishers and agents or attend book fairs etc (and don’t always jump a the first offer – double-check promptly that there are no potential rival offers from other interested parties before accepting).
 
Alternatively, and advisable anyway, check with appropriate official bodies, such as the Society of Authors, to get their view on offers being made to you. And the same goes for contracts – there are numerous official routes, paid or not, to have contracts read and checked. (And another general rule applied here too – if you are paying for any of the above; make sure you know who you are dealing with, what you are getting and how the fee compares in the market) – ask for recommendations from other independent authors.
 
So, there you have it – a whistle-stop tour of book rights, what you have and how to get the ball rolling. But the message is clear: the value you hold is not only from that physical book in front of you – it is much wider than that. As an independent author, start focussing on what rights you hold and what you can do with them. Follow these steps and potentially you could have global business at your fingertips.
 
 
Tom Chalmers is Managing Director of IPR License, the first global and digital platform on which to list and license book rights. To visit IPR License, go to www.iprlicense.com. Tom also has six other publishing businesses and is involved in the UK online book retailer BOOKS etc.

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