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Negotiating the Grant of Rights in Book Publishing Deals

This post is the second in a four part series that informs authors, literary agents, lawyers, publishers, and other interested readers about the basics of book deals. It provides tactics and tips to be used when negotiating intellectual property rights in a book deal. Check back each week for the newest post or subscribe to the newsletter on bobbydesmond.com to get it sent directly to your email inbox.


Grant of Rights

The grant of rights is a dense clause of legalese that transfers the author’s right in the book to the publisher. In copyright law, the author has a “bundle of rights” that he or she can grant to third parties (like a book publisher.) An author can grant the publisher some or all of these rights. If an author grants only some of these rights, the author retains the other rights that he or she does not grant the publisher. In large part, negotiating a book deal comes down to what rights the author wants to give to the publisher and what rights the author intends to keep for himself or herself. Here is an example:

Author grants to Publisher the exclusive right to print, publish, sell, distribute, license, and otherwise exploit the work in the English language, in all formats, in whole or in part, throughout the world during the full term of copyright and any renewals and extensions thereof except as provided herein.

Within this one sentence, the author has granted the publisher numerous sticks in that bundle of rights including exclusivity, language, format, territory, and term.

Generally, publishers will seek broad language to ensure the author is granting them the entire bundle of rights. An author with a valid reason to retain some of those rights may negotiate for narrower language. Retaining rights can be an effective way for an author to increase the amount of profits he or she receives from any given book. However, retaining the wrong rights can have a negative impact on the author’s financial success. Authors should generally only seek to retain rights if they have good reason to do so. Authors should generally avoid selfishly retaining rights that they do not have the means or intentions to exploit. If the publisher has the means and intends to publish the book in all languages, formats, and territories, then it is often to the advantage of both parties for the publisher to have the ability to do so.

Exclusivity

In an exclusive publishing agreement, the author grants the publisher the right to publish the book, and the author gives up his or her right to grant other publishers that same right. Generally, publishers require authors to grant them the exclusive right to publish a book.

Note that the author in the example above has granted the publisher “the exclusive right to print, publish, sell, distribute, and license the work in the English language…” This means that this publisher is the only publisher that can publish this book in English, so the author cannot grant this right to anyone else.

In a non-exclusive publishing agreement, the author grants the publisher the right to publish the book, but the author also retains the right to grant other publishers the right to publish the book. There are a few notable exceptions where a non-exclusive publishing agreement may be preferable.

First, an author that self-publishes his or her book should prefer to sign a non-exclusive book publishing contract that allows the author to take that book to as many self-publishing platforms as possible.

Second, serial rights are useful when an author wishes to provide a publisher with the non-exclusive right to reprint a work that has already been published in another publication. For example, imagine a publisher seeks to republish a short story that has already been published in a literary magazine. The author will want to provide the literary magazine with first serial rights. In other words, the author gives the literary magazine the exclusive right to publish the short story for the first time in any publication, but the author retains the right to reprint the short story after that. So, the author can then provide a second publisher with the non-exclusive right to publish the short story in a hardcover collection of short stories. This arrangement allows the author to continue signing non-exclusive agreements in the future with other publications.

Language and Translation Rights

It is important to note that exclusivity is limited by the terms that follow it. Take, for example, the clause above, which states that the publisher has “the exclusive right to publish the work in the English language.” Here, the author has granted the publisher the exclusive right to publish the book in English, but the author has retained the right to publish the book in other languages. So, the author would be free to go to a foreign language book publisher and sell them the rights to publish the book in Spanish, German, Chinese, or any language other than English.

Remember, both the author and the publisher have the same goal in mind: to sell as many copies of the book as possible. If a publisher has the means and intends to translate and publish the book in other languages, then it does not benefit the author to retain this right, especially if the author has no connections to foreign language book publishers. In such cases, authors should grant the publisher the right to publish the work in all languages. However, if a publisher does not have the means or does not intend to translate and publish the book in other languages, then it may benefit the author to retain this right, especially if the author or the literary agent has connections to foreign language book publishers that are willing to translate and publish the book in other languages. In such cases, authors should grant the publisher the right to publish the work in those specific languages only.

Format

Format refers to the form the book will take, such as hardcover, paperback, e-book, or some other format. In the example above, the author has granted the publisher the right to publish the book “in all formats,” but authors may choose to retain some format rights.

Remember, both the author and the publisher have the same goal in mind: to sell as many copies of the book as possible. If a publisher has the means and intends to publish the book in all formats, then it does not benefit the author to retain certain format rights, especially if the author has no connections to publishers that can publish the book in those formats. In such cases, authors should grant the publisher the right to publish the book in all formats. However, if a publisher does not have the means or does not intend to publish the book in all formats, then it may benefit the author to retain the right to publish the book in certain formats, especially if the author or the literary agent has connections to publishers that are willing to publish the book in those formats. In such cases, authors should grant the publisher the right to publish the work in those specific formats by using limited language such as “in hardcover and paperback” or “as an e-book.”

Territory

Generally, grants may be worldwide or country-specific. In the example above, the author granted the publisher the exclusive right to publish the work “throughout the world.” Authors should approach negotiation of this term in the same way he or she approaches negotiation of the language and format terms. If a publisher has the means and intends to publish the book throughout the world, then it is likely to the authors advantage to grant the publisher this right – since it means more book sales! However, if a publisher does not have the means or does not intend to publish the book in foreign countries, then it may benefit the author to retain the right to publish the book in other countries, especially if the author or the literary agent has connections to foreign book publishers. In such cases, authors should grant the publisher the right to publish the work in those specific countries or territories.

Term

The term refers to how long the publisher can publish the book for. Generally, publishers will require this period of time to be measured as “the full term of such copyrights (and any and all extensions and renewals thereof)” – which is for the life of the author plus 70 years.

There are a few notable exceptions. For example, book publishing contracts for translations are generally between five to ten years, and audiobook publishing contracts are often for ten years.


This series informs authors, literary agents, lawyers, publishers, and other interested readers about the basics of book deals. It provides tactics and tips to be used when negotiating a book deal. It consists of four parts that cover negotiating the following topics:

  1. Registering Trademarks and Copyrights
  2. Exclusivity and the Grant of Rights
  3. Subsidiary Rights
  4. Other Important Rights

Check back each week for the newest post or subscribe to the newsletter on bobbydesmond.com to get it sent directly to your email inbox.


About: DJ turned JD highlights the latest legal updates in the entertainment and media industries, intellectual property, the internet and social media. The blawg is compiled and curated by Bobby Desmond. After working as a radio personality, Bobby attended the University of Florida Levin College of Law in order to pursue an in-house legal career at an entertainment or media corporation. He has interned at PBS with America’s Public Television Stations in Arlington, VA and at AMC Networks in New York, NY. He graduated in May 2018 and passed the New York Bar Exam in July 2018.