Monday, 18 April 2011

LBF Rights Workshop: an introduction to rights selling.

The London Book Fair has come and gone so quickly, that I barely noticed the 3 days of madness and meetings that it's carried with it. The new faces I've seen, the million of hands shaken and the thousands of names caught, are now some kind of blur in my mind. I'm still exhausted!

Thanks to the Society of Young Publishers I had the chance to attend the pre-LBF rights workshop on Sunday 12th April. The workshop was a theoretical and practical introduction to the world of rights, one of the main activities at the LBF, really. 
I've always been fascinated by the world of rights and law-related topics in publishing; I had the chance to approach the topic in college, during my MA, and I thought it'd be interesting to get to know better the people who have been working in this field for a while, and hear directly from them the kind of challenges they have to face everyday at work.
Because selling and buying rights is not as straightforward as one might think! Reality sometimes is way more complicated than theory and cases you study on books, and there still definitely are many grey areas.
The copyright legislation differs from country to country and even though there are specific conventions, like for example the Berne Convention of 1886, there still are some issues which cannot easily been solved, and which require a different ruling every time, depending on the situation and the parties involved.

Anyhow, the panel consisted of the following brilliant people and experts:
Hugh Jones, copyright counsel at the Publishers Association
Oliver Munson, literary agent at Blake Friedmann 
Lynette Owen, copyright director at Pearson Education Ltd
Diane Spivey, rights and contracts director at Little Brown Book Group
Dominika Minarovic, rights assistant at Hachette UK.

I thought that the variety of experience and the different kind of markets represented was what made this particular panel very appealing. We heard the opinions of people who have been into the industry for a few decades, but also of a younger professional who has been working in rights for a couple of years only. So I really think this helped to give a broad and exhaustive perspective on the topic.

The workshop began with an introduction by Lynette Owen on the importance of rights, and the reason why it's important to buy/sell them. Obviously the main reason has to do with money. Rights are a source of revenue for the author, or the person/publisher who owns those rights. The fragmentation of the 'rights package', that comes with the original artistic work, will give the owner of the copyright the chance to expand their brand and audience, reach markets which would otherwise be hard to enter (translations in specific languages, remainders/cheap products for developing countries), exploit different kinds of media (TV, radio, movies...) and formats (digital, large print...). Of course the situation varies when it comes to educational publishers, as Ms Owen stressed a few times; a school book created in the UK is more likely to appeal to the UK market only, because the content would be focusing on that specific curriculum, therefore the publisher wouldn't rely much on the selling of translation rights et similia

Among the topics covered during the rest of the workshop, the head contract has been the most discussed issue by the panel. A head contract is the mutual undertaking of legal responsibilities between the author and the publisher. It's the main contract which -in theory- specifies who owns what, in terms of rights and licenses. Hugh Jones gave a brilliant overview of the main kind of rights, as for example, publishing, moral and privacy rights, specifying what the copyright actually is and why it's so important that Conventions such as Berne are in place to prevent the breach of contracts and the misuse of content. Mr Jones went on specifying the length of copyright in Europe and making comparisons with the USA/Canada cases which seem to slightly differ in almost all fields concerning rights selling and contracts. This was a very useful comparison and helped putting things in perspective. If you're like me you might have found yourself reading breaking news of new contracts and rights selling on international websites and you're scratching your head not knowing what's actually going on. No more! Almost.
Diane Spivey spent the last hour of the workshop giving a detailed, and indeed very useful, list of things that a good head contract should include. (Please let me know if you're interested in this and I can provide all my notes!). She also made a brief comparison between the rights that used to be the most important a few years ago, and those which are now, with the introduction of e-readers and such, the essential and most profitable ones.
It's interesting to know that serial rights, which were incredibly sought after during the past decades have now lost importance, mainly for the move of many newspapers to the digital format and also for the size of the newspapers themselves, which is now smaller compared to the past one. However, even though serialisation has lost importance, it's still a -small- source of revenue and of publicity.

English/Translation rights seem to be the most profitable. Markets are expanding, despite the general crisis of the last 2 years, and smaller, developing countries are entering the market.
Audio and radio rights have unsurprisingly lost importance for many reasons: first of all the cassette market has already gone out of business, and now the CD market seems to be facing the same crisis, since people are relying more and more on mp3 and digital files. However, even though radio rights aren't very profitable, they're steady and have a niche audience to which specialised programs and channels are dedicated - for example Radio 4.
What I found very interesting was the point Ms Spivey made about large print rights, and how they're becoming obsolete, if you think that you can change the size of your font on your reader without buying a specific large print edition of the book you want.
Other rights that were covered in this discussion were digest and condensation rights (for subscribers), digital rights (on which she didn't spend much time on, as she said that they usually mimicked the normal rights), and reactive rights (photocopies/anthologies), which interestingly are one of the most profitable areas for academic publishers, as underlined by Ms Owen.

A funny and interesting debate took place between literary agent Oliver Munson and rights assistant for Hachette UK, Dominika Minarovic. They tried to explain in turn why it would be better for the author to sell rights through a literary agency or a publishing house rights department. One thing seems to be the common idea of both sides, acquire broadly and license narrowly. Publishing houses usually have a rights department which sells directly in various territories and doesn't rely on middle-men/sub-agents like it often happens via a literary agency. Also, the rights department, being within the publishing house, works closely with the marketing, editorial and production departments, therefore it has an easier access to the promotional and other material which might be needed in order to efficiently close a deal. Whereas it's more complicated to access material when you're a literary agency, since you need to request everything from the publisher and very often this isn't very time-effective. 
On the other hand if an author decides to give their rights to a literary agency they 'd be sure that the he/she gets to keep more of the advances and royalties when they deal directly with oversea publishers. Plus, I personally think that the connection between an agent and a writer is a little more personal and close than between an author and a whole publishing house.

Finally, lovely Dominika gave an example of a typical day in her office life. I thought her take on rights selling was very refreshing, since she's a young woman who's been in the field only for a few years. She stressed how important it is to be organised and on top of everything when it comes to contracts and authors. She was able to answer the question that many of us in the audience wanted to ask: what exactly do you actually do in a rights department? She gave a few examples and tips on how to optimise your time in the office and avoid going crazy during book fairs!
All in all this workshop was very interesting, and educative. Some things were very theoretical and I would have appreciated more practical examples, maybe an examination of some well-known rights issues with important authors. I personally think that copyright law is easily understandable when you have a real case examined in front of you, but I guess this wasn't the right place, being an introduction to the topic.
The panel was excellent and talkative, which is always good. There were quite a few questions from the public, which means they were involved and interested in what the experts had to say.

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