BAM! You’ve written a book. A contract is on the table. A pen stroke later your fate is sealed. If you’re lucky, an agent is acting as a resource, making sure the terms and conditions work for you. They’re explaining the fine print and in the long run, their commission should include making you aware of what the document you’re about to sign contains. In the world of indie publishing, agents are a luxury and often times authors navigate the legalities on their own. Contained within that contract are a list of rights being requested by the publisher. Let’s demystify the complex terminology.
The story you’ve written is yours for the moment. When you give away rights, any rights, you are giving away pieces of ownership to your story. These actions might be partial, whole, temporary, or permanent. It’s up to you as the author to keep track of your rights and what you have to give away. Failure to do so could result in something as mild as being black-listed by a publisher to legal ramifications.
Copyright – You are the copyright holder. This is your creation, born from your imagination. It might also be referred to as originator or the assignee (which means you legally have the ability to sign documents on behalf of this work.)
Exclusive – A contract will almost always include the word exclusive. The publisher wants to be the only person able to reproduce your work in a particular medium. They may only ask for exclusive digital rights, meaning they are the only company who can produce your work for the duration of your contract.
Non-Exclusive – You are allowing a publisher to print your work, but retain the ability to print it with another publisher at the same time. This is common in anthologies. They may ask for exclusive rights for a set amount of time and then revert to non-exclusive allowing you to reprint it elsewhere.
First Option – The publisher wants the ability to offer you a contract for your next work (usually in the same universe as your originally contracted work) before you send it other publishers or self-publish. This can work in your favor to help you skip the typical submission process. Make sure it has a termination date if no offer is made so you can publish it elsewhere if your first publisher is not interested.
Print – You are giving away the physical rights to your story. This means the intent is to produce a physical, tangible material. It can include magazines, novels, novellas, or anthologies, but it only means the physical product.
Digital – You are giving away the digital rights to your story. Often this means eBook or digital magazines rights but can also include content on a website. However, now with the advent of audio, some contracts lump them together. It is best to make sure your contract explicitly states digital AND audio in that case.
Audio – You are giving away the digital and physical rights to audio. Physical and digital you ask? Yes, some places still produce CD’s for audio books. Some publications include podcasting in with their audio rights as it is still voice actors interpreting your work.
Worldwide – This means rights for the entire planet, folks. If they say “worldwide print,” this means they own print rights everywhere from India, to Croatia, to the United States. Some contracts use this as a blanket statement because they want everything despite having no intention of printing in international markets. Unless the publisher has a reputation for doing outstanding international work, this should be narrow as possible. Worldwide rights and only printing in the U.S. market removes your ability to print in French.
Language – Can get a bit more complicated than a simple territory. English rights is the most common (for U.S. residents) but without clarification in the contract, does this include English rights in the United Kingdom? Do Portuguese rights mean Portugal and Brazil? Make sure language is not the only thing dictating territories. For smaller presses it is extremely common that only English Language Rights are requested. If you are giving away your language rights for foreign territories, be sure the publisher has an established track record in that market.
One & Done
First Rights – You are giving away the “firstness” of your story. Nobody has ever published it before (including yourself.) This often includes if you’ve given away a story for free to your mailing list or on your website. First means first ever. Some publishers will split first into first print and first digital. Look for this specifically.
All Other Rights – Buyer beware. This phrase in a contract means the publisher is asking for rights for everything beyond the book as well. Television? Movies? Audio? Stage-Play? Comics? This phrase will rob you of every right to your book. This phrase should be a contract killer. If your book is highly successful, your publisher will have the ability to negotiate the television adaptation. Unless you’re certain you know what you’re doing, avoid at all costs.
Is this everything? Absolutely not. But it will help you start making sense of the open calls put on by publishers. If something in a contract or request appears vague, ask for clarification. If the publisher isn’t willing to provide it, that is the red flag necessary to move on. Even if you are approaching publishers without an agent, have somebody with legal expertise examine your contract. There are professional organizations that will assist authors. It’s stressful, it’s exciting, but be sure you are worrying about your long-term career as you put ink to the contract.