Chip MacGregor

July 8, 2013

On Contracts: What’s New With Rights



Guest writer Marie Prys is Contract Administrator at MacGregor Literary. A former editor and co-author, she now spends her working hours reading each and every contract MacGregor Literary facilitates while working closely with our agents and trading emails with, at last count, 25 publishers.


On Contracts: What’s New with Rights by Marie Prys

At long last, the wait is over. The publishing agreement has arrived, likely in the form of a PDF attachment delivered over E-mail. Looking rather heavy with single-spaced legalese and significant ramifications, you want to print, sign, and send. It’s GO time.

And since it has taken six months or a year or even two years to get to this point, it’s tempting to skip to the good section, the show-me-the-money paragraph, and then head for the signature page. You’ve worked so hard and so long for this moment–you might feel hesitant about appearing troublesome or finding problems with this agreement, of asking further questions.

Experienced authors will tell you–this contract could be your worst nightmare–a career-killing albatross that will haunt your future. Then again, it could be a very standard contract that is fair and will establish a mutually beneficial relationship between you and your publisher. If you’re not sure exactly what you have in front of you, consider these few items regarding rights, all of which I’ve seen popping up lately in my daily dose of contract reading.

Which rights should I grant to the publisher?

Publishers are asking for more specific rights than ever. Theme park rights, video game rights, lyric rights, calendar rights, workbook and curriculum rights–all of these classes of rights show up in the wording. These are in addition to the usual rights being routinely requested and granted to publishing houses of all shapes and sizes: digital, motion picture/dramatic rights, audio rights, and foreign rights.

If you have a connection for someone to write a screenplay and potentially sell the dramatic rights, or an agent who wants to shop foreign rights for this book, or you are going to build your own theme park based on characters in your book, you need to think ahead and know what you are committing to when you sign your book contract. And if granting a specific right is an issue, explain to the publisher what the situation is, and chances are, they will be able to help find a workable solution.

Which rights should I never grant to the publisher?

If you see a clause like this one, you need to speak up: The author grants all rights not specifically enumerated, now in existence or hereinafter coming into existence. 

As quickly as technology is changing, you do not want to grant all rights to the publisher without being able to negotiate for them. The last five years have brought digital publishing into the light; who knows what the next big thing will be in book publishing!

How long will these rights belong to the publisher?

It’s no longer a given that your book’s rights are granted to the publisher for the life of the copyright. Though that used to be the case, it isn’t anymore. Some publishers spell this reality out under a “term of contract” clause, which is great to see. Here’s an example:

This Agreement shall be for a period of three (3) years from the actual date of publication, with automatic yearly renewal after that. At any time following such period of three (3) years, the AUTHOR shall have the right to terminate this AGREEMENT, with full reversion of all rights to the WORK granted hereunder, upon written notice to the PUBLISHER, subject to the PUBLISHER’S obligation to pay the AUTHOR any royalties then due or becoming due.

What if the book doesn’t sell well? Can I get the rights back?

Try to gain wording in the termination section of the contract in the event that sales of the Work are weak a few years after publication, there is a timeline for the publisher to declare the book out of print and have the rights revert back to the author. What we don’t want is for the author to be collecting $32.83 per year and have no recourse and a publisher who holds the rights indefinitely. The publisher should have a planned timeline for how and when the rights will return to the Author in the event sales are low.

Anything else I should know when dealing with contracts?

The important thing when negotiating specific points is to be polite, clearly state your concern, and give the publisher an opportunity to respond, and might refuse your request. But you never know till you ask! You might hear back in two days, and other times it might take three weeks. I try not to follow up until at least two full weeks after I have submitted my requests on a contract, but after that it’s perfectly acceptable to send a polite E-mail requesting an update on the status of a contract. And even then, you might have to wait a few weeks. The contract process has a timeline all its own.

So what other questions do you have about contracts? Pass them my way and we’ll see about sharing answers on another post.


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  • :Donna Marie says:

    This is excellent info. Thank you, Marie! I have to add, though, that I find it extremely disheartening that publishers are that greedy with rights 🙁

  • Amy Leigh Simpson says:

    This is so helpful! Thank you, Marie!

  • Sally says:

    Marie, thanks so much for sharing this. Now that e-books are a staple, will books still go out of print? Or do houses eventually stop printing and just keep the e-book up for sale, preventing the writer from ever getting their rights back? Is there a way to make sure that at a certain low point all print and e-book rights revert to the author?

    • Marie Prys says:

      Sally, that’s a good question. Books still do go out of print–publishers don’t want to hang onto books that aren’t selling well. And more and more, we are seeing a term limit on the length of the contract, which helps authors to avoid the trap you describe of having the rights to their book tied up indefinitely.

      One thing that can be requested within the termination section of the agreement is for the author to request greater marketing efforts on behalf of the book when sales are weakening. Say your first book is published, and five years after publication, your author royalties for all forms of the work combined have dropped below a certain figure, such as $200 in a calendar year. You would write to the publisher to plead your case and request that an effort be made to boost sales, and then you would need to wait. The publisher would then make a decision to either do the additional marketing and see how sales play out for another year, or just decide to send the book out of print. And after that year, if sales still flagged, you could request the rights back, per the language in the termination clause.

    • Sally says:

      Very interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  • Marie Prys says:

    Thanks, @Need Advice! That does sound like a good topic for a future post. Stay tuned.

  • Excellent update, Marie! Thank you!



  • Need Advice says:

    Thank you, Marie. This type of information is invaluable. Could you possibly do a post on royalty terms? What exactly are the fiscal responsibilities of the publisher vs the writer? What does “% of net price” mean? Thanks!

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