Blowing the Rights Trumpet by Diane Spivey

Rights sellers only recognise two seasons in the year: pre-Book Fair and post-Book Fair, and as we gear ourselves up for the next fair in the calendar, the pressure is on to present our titles in the best light and bring home the bacon.  But do our publishing companies truly understand and appreciate what we do?

A forthcoming survey from PLS shockingly shows that a significant number of UK publishing companies do not report Rights income separately or budget for it in a way that is monitored.   This can lead to undervaluing Rights income and a lack of understanding of the difference between gross and net income.  Licensing (with the exception of co-edition business) has no cost of sales; ‘net’ simply means net of an author’s agreed share of the income.   Rights income cannot be directly compared with turnover or profit margin made on book sales.

If your company undertakes a profit and loss analysis on individual titles after publication, you may have seen surprise on some people’s faces when they see the impact Rights income can have on the bottom line.  What might have been a loss-making project can be transformed by a nice injection of translation money, or you can clearly see an outstanding author advance whittled away by income from large print, serial or audio deals: all very gratifying. 

But are we fully appreciated for what we do? Can we do more? Do we shout loudly enough about our successes?

When I started in publishing, I did not even know that Rights was a ‘thing’.  Nowadays, publishers share much more information about alternatives to editorial, and newcomers will see Rights as an attractive potential career.    But Rights still has something of a mystique to it, and we have sometimes used this to our advantage.  Rather than being seen as a selling job, licensing may be seen as primarily to do with copyright and the law.  As a result, we may get away with less scrutiny, or may be held less to account than our sales department colleagues, our financial contribution just seen as ‘icing on the cake’.  This can be amplified in consumer publishing, by the fact that we are not always working on the same priority titles as the rest of the company.  We may not have US rights or translation rights in a high-profile author, if a literary agent has held these rights back.  During my time at Little, Brown, the company was working flat out on making a best-seller of J K Rowling’s adult fiction: editorial, sales, marketing, publicity and production all focussed on one goal.  Meanwhile, the Rights department’s focus of attention was a conspiracy thriller by an unknown author that we succeeded in licensing into 27 languages: our own home-grown bestseller.  We sometimes seem to be running on parallel, but complimentary, tracks to our colleagues.

I believe that you need to shout out loud about Rights successes.  Even if you report Rights deals regularly to your management team and to individual editors and authors, they may need context in order to fully comprehend your achievements.  If reporting a sale to, say, Estonia, with an advance of €2,500, you may need to add “which is really good for that market”.  Or point out that you have earned out the author’s advance in Rights income before the book is even published.

Applying more rigour to the reporting of Rights income has been a challenge.  Many years ago, Lynette Owen persuaded the Publishers Association that income from Rights should be included in their annual statistics, and the process of collecting this data continues.  However, some Rights databases (or a lack of any formal system) make collecting the data a thankless manual task. Other factors add to the problem: the difficulty of reporting equivalent data from literary agents; and a lack of consistent terminology when we talk about different strands of Rights income. (Electronic rights can mean something very different to an academic publisher and a consumer publisher.) The result is that the data we do have is difficult to analyse year on year, to recognise trends or growing markets.

During my publishing career, Rights licensing has gone from a low-profile, often passive activity to a professional, commercially-aware strand of the industry, driving global business and at the core of international book fairs.  Yet Rights sellers still need to work more closely together, sharing best practice, technology and terminology, explaining what we do to the world, and having the figures to back it up, if we want to claim our rightful (no pun intended) position at the heart of our business.

Blog written by Diane Spivey on behalf of BolognaBookPlus.