“Writers do not sell books. We license copyright.” Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Rethinking the Writing Business
Many authors think that when they finish a manuscript, they have just one book to show for it.
But it is much more than that.
Once the penny drops on how rights licensing works, you will truly see the value in your writing — and understand why publishers want to pay you for it.
This is just an overview of copyright, so please read the suggested books and resources listed below to empower yourself further in this important area.
This is an excerpt from How to Make a Living with Your Writing: Turn Your Words Into Multiple Streams of Income.
What is copyright?
“Copyright is a legal device that provides the creator of a work of art or literature, or a work that conveys information or ideas, the right to control how the work is used.” Stephen Fishman, The Copyright Handbook
You have copyright in your work once it exists in tangible form. It’s not necessary to register your manuscript, but it may provide more protection in any legal disputes if you do.
As the copyright holder, you control how the work is used. You license the right to reproduce the book, to distribute and sell it, to create adaptations and derivative works (for example, screenplays or translations), and/or to perform or display the work in public.
You don’t have to license everything all at once to the same company, and in fact, you usually don’t want to. The best way to make money with your copyright is to carve it up into different slices and make the most of every piece.
As Dean Wesley Smith says in The Magic Bakery,
“Say you write a novel. The novel is the pie. The copyright is what you license from the pie, the pieces of the pie … You never sell the entire pie.”
You can slice your copyright pie up in different ways.
One slice might be Paperback rights for UK Commonwealth in English which you license to a traditional publisher.
Another slice might be Worldwide English ebook rights which you decide to license non-exclusively to specific distributors like Amazon for Kindle, Kobo, Apple, and Google Play, as well as selling direct to readers from your website.
Yet another slice might be South Korean language and territory rights to ebook, paperback and hardback editions for a limited term of seven years.
All for the same book, with many more slides of the pie remaining.
In broad terms, think about format, language, territory (or country), and time frame. You can slice the pie up in as many ways as you can imagine.
It’s magic because you receive money for a slice, and then it can return to you later in order to license all over again. For example, I licensed German ebook rights to one of my novels several years ago, and the rights returned to me after three years so I could continue selling it myself, or re-license it if preferred.
This is even more magical for short stories, which you can license for reprint and anthologies multiple times after the first serial rights.
You can find more detail on different rights licensing in The Copyright Handbook by Stephen Fishman.
Why is it important to understand rights licensing?
Publishers are not charities.
They license copyright and publish books in order to make money. Of course, most people working within the publishing industry truly love books and literary culture, but a business needs to make a profit over the long-term.
Consider a publishing contract clause that is all too common these days which licenses,
“All languages, all territories, all formats now existing and to be invented, for the term of copyright.”
The term of copyright is 50 or 70 years after the death of the author depending on your jurisdiction, so this clause really is the whole pie!
If you consider the possibilities of selective rights licensing, do you really want to sign such an all-encompassing contract term?
Is any single company going to be able to make the most of every slice of your magic pie, even for formats that have not been invented yet? Or is it better to license selectively based on the company’s specialization?
As Stephen Fishman says in The Copyright Handbook,
“It is usually in an author’s best interest to retain as many rights as possible, unless, of course, the publisher pays so much that it makes sense to assign all rights.”
You will have to define what ‘so much’ means to you, but many authors undervalue their work and license everything for just a few thousand dollars because they don’t truly understand what they are signing.
Many authors take deals because they’re grateful they have been offered anything at all, but you need to value your writing if you want to make a living from it. Remember, contracts are for negotiating.
Won’t my agent handle all this?
If you work with a good agent, they will help you with your contracts as part of their job in exchange for 15% commission, but this is your copyright, your career, and your money on the line. If you empower yourself with knowledge around contract terms and licensing, you will save yourself heartache, time and money along the way, especially if you are considering writing as a career.
However you choose to publish, author organizations like The Authors Guild and the Society of Authors, as well as the Alliance of Independent Authors, can help with understanding contract terms.
Selective rights licensing or the hybrid model
“Some people call authors who both self-publish and trade-publish ‘hybrid.’ At the Alliance of Independent Authors, it’s just part of being indie… The indie author licenses rights selectively, with a sense of their own worth and their books’ value. For us, trade publishers are author services, not the other way around, and rights deals are all just part of being indie.” Orna A. Ross, Creative Self-Publishing
The most successful authors understand the importance of selective rights licensing, and work with a combination of companies to maximize their returns. It is no longer either traditional publishing or self-publishing; it is a combination of both.
J.K. Rowling retained her digital rights to Harry Potter and started her company, Pottermore, in 2008 to distribute ebooks and audiobooks, moving into other partnerships and business ventures over time. According to the Financial Times in June 2017, it is now a $25 billion business.
Of course, most of us will never reach that level of success, but many authors selectively license to make more money and reach more readers, many of whom are quoted throughout this book.
Mark Dawson, bestselling author of the John Milton thriller series, self-publishes his ebooks in English exclusively with Amazon, as well as licensing English language print editions to Welbeck Publishing Group and audio projects to Audible among others.
Children’s author Karen Inglis licensed The Secret Lake to publishers in Russia, Turkey, Albania, the Czech Republic, China, Iran, and Ukraine. All approached her after the book’s self-published success on Amazon in English.
Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson licenses his books to traditional publishers, but retains the right to special editions. In November 2020, Sanderson raised nearly US$7 million on Kickstarter to create the 10th anniversary leather-bound special edition of The Way of Kings.
Authors with decades of experience in the publishing industry combine different rights licensing deals for their books into a highly lucrative career. I recommend books by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith, and Orna Ross on this topic as they have extensive experience in every side of the industry.
Hopefully, you now understand the value of your copyright and how licensing it in various ways can bring you multiple streams of income.
- What is copyright?
- How does rights licensing make you money?
- Why is selective rights licensing a good idea?
- How can you empower yourself with the knowledge you need in this area?
- The Copyright Handbook: What Every Writer Needs To Know — Stephen Fishman
- Rethinking The Writing Business — Kristine Kathryn Rusch
- Selective Rights Licensing: Sell Your Book Rights At Home and Abroad — Orna A. Ross and Helen Sedwick
- Creative Self-Publishing: Make and Sell Your Books Your Way — Orna A. Ross
- The Magic Bakery: Copyright in the Modern World of Fiction Publishing — Dean Wesley Smith
- Closing the Deal… on Your Terms: Agents, Contracts and Other Considerations — Kristine Kathryn Rusch
- Hollywood vs. The Author — Edited by Stephen Jay Schwartz
- Empowering authors around copyright. Interview with Rebecca Giblin
- The importance of editing and why authors need to understand their publishing contracts with Ruth Ware
- The Society of Authors (UK) — SocietyOfAuthors.org
- The Authors Guild (USA) — AuthorsGuild.org
- The Alliance of Independent Authors (global)