Understanding Your Author Rights
by Alex Cabal
You have a lot of rights as a writer and author, and knowing them is the first step in protecting your work and ensuring you get the most out of it at market.
Many writers make the mistake of selling all of their author rights when signing a publishing contract. That doesn’t have to be the case! The author who carefully divides up their rights and sells them bit by bit is the author who makes the most money from a publishing deal.
Basic author rights
All creators, including authors, are granted many important author rights automatically as soon as their writing is created. These rights are what protects your intellectual property, and how you sell that property–in parts, or all at once–determines how much money you can make.
Author rights granted by copyright
In the United States, the Copyright Act grants the writer exclusive rights to control their writing in five important ways. (There’s a sixth right but it only applies to sound recordings.) Copyright laws vary around the world, but many provide protections similar to the following list.
To create copies of the copyrighted work
This is one of the most fundamental rights for writers and authors, and carefully controlling who is allowed to make copies, how many of them, and when, is how many authors make the bulk of their earnings.
To create derivative works based on the copyrighted work
Authors also control the rights to create work based on their original copyrighted work. Derivative works can include movies, TV shows, radio adaptations, or even sequels and reimaginings.
To distribute copies of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or lease
Controlling distribution is also an important right. Authors can sell the rights to distribute in different countries to different people, for example.
In the case of literary (and other) works, to perform the work publicly
This right is not as applicable to writers, who rarely have their novels read out loud to the public. But, it’s just another right to consider when making a big sale.
In the case of literary (and other) works, to display the work publicly
This right allows writers to control, for example, how their work is displayed at a presentation in a conference.
In general, the United States is more concerned with copyright and does not recognize moral rights. But, other countries, like Europe, do recognize them.
Moral rights are concerned with the author’s right to be recognized as the author of a particular work. In many countries and jurisdictions, moral right can’t be given up, so they’re not as applicable to the financials of a book sale.
Selling the publishing rights to your writing
Writers make money when they take their basic rights and carve off parts of them for sale to a publisher. The more carefully the writer does this, the more they stand to make. Think about it: If a publisher asks for all rights, and you give it to them, then you have nothing left to sell–the publisher takes complete control of your work worldwide. But what if you only sold them one-time rights (the ability to publish your work once), and only for North America? Then you could contact another publisher in Europe to sell them the second, or reprint, European rights. You could make a lot more money that way!
Common kinds of rights deals in a publishing contract
As an author, you can slice and dice your rights up in any way you wish. But, there are some common kinds of deals that you’ll see over and over again in the publishing industry. Here are a few of them:
- All rights
You give up all ownership of your work worldwide, including derivative rights like rights to characters, concepts, and worlds. The publisher can publish in any format, including TV and film forever. Typically once your rights are sold you will not be compensated further.
These author rights entitle a publisher to be the first entity anywhere to publish your work.
The publisher is given the non-exclusive right to publish the work once.
The publisher is allowed to publish your work after it has been first published elsewhere.
First serial rights
Typically used by periodicals or newspapers, these author rights allow them to publish part or all of your never-published work for the first time.
Second serial rights
Again, often used by periodicals or newspapers to allow them to publish part or all of your work after it has been published before elsewhere.
Tips for selling your author rights
Often the first author right you’ll grant is the “First North American Serial Rights”, or FNASR. Note how you’ve specified “North American”; this allows you to sell the first serial rights for other countries to other publishers. After this sale, you can continue to sell new publishing rights to reprints.
When selling your rights to a publisher, you should be as clear and specific as possible in what rights you’re selling. If the publisher is only planning to publish print books, then specify “print rights.” If they later want to create ebooks, you can offer them the “electronic rights.”
The more specific you are in the author rights you’re selling, the clearer it will be to you, and subsequent publishers, what rights you have remaining to sell. Not being specific can lead to nasty surprises for you down the road, as you may have sold a right you didn’t realize you had!
The key takeaway
The most important thing to take away from this post is that even though copyright grants you a certain number of basic author rights, you as a writer can carve off and sell portions of those basic rights in as many ways as you want. You don’t have to sell them all at once, or even to the same publisher. Get creative, and get specific, when selling your rights, to get the best deal you can.
Understanding your author rights is one of the basic tasks for your literary agent. If in doubt, ask them for their advice, and they should hopefully steer you in the right path for your situation.