What are subsidiary rights in a literary publishing agreement?

“Subsidiary rights” usually refer to the right to exploit the book in other media. Pretty much any use of the book other than to sell copies of the book is a subsidiary right. Some lawyers would call these “derivative works” but in the literary world, they are subsidiary rights.

Some examples include:

  • Serial rights. This the use of content from the book in serializations, excerpts, digests and the like. This can be divided into a¬†first and second serial. First serials are those released before the book is published, and second serials are those released after the book is published. This might run in magazines or newspapers, for example.
  • Translations. This should be obvious. This refers to foreign language translations of the book. These can be extremely lucrative for certain works.
  • Electronic books. This is more and more important. Almost everyone now knows what an electronic book is, but this can often be read more broadly to refer to any electronic storage and retrieval of the book text.
  • Audio recording. If you have consumed any media on the internet recently, you’ve probably seen or heard an ad for Audible. Audiobooks used to mean books on tape. Now, it means any version of the book read allowed and recorded for distribution.
  • Performance / Dramatic Rights. This is every author’s favorite daydream. Film and TV adaptations, theatrical performances, etc., all fall into this category. Author’s should think about reserving these rights. Publishers don’t specialize in selling these rights, but an author can hire a secondary agent that does, and these deals can fetch large sums of money even if the project never gets off the ground.
  • Merchandising. Think tee shirts, mugs, mousepads¬†and other physical goods bearing the name of the book, characters, scenes, etc. Granted, most books never have a huge market for character tees, but if an author has written the next Harry Potter, these rights are a huge boon.
  • Book clubs. Okay, so this one is just sales of the book. But, it refers to subscription book clubs where subscribers don’t pay the full price for the book. Some book clubs even print their own versions of the book.
  • Other Publications. This is also book sales. Large print, braille, schoolbook or book fair editions.

By default, a lot of these will be allocated 50/50 between the author and the publisher. A savvy author, however, will look at the publisher’s track record for various subsidiary rights and reserve any rights they feel can be better exploited by someone else. The 50/50 split can also be moved up in some cases. A literary attorney can help know where to push and what rights to fight for.