January 20, 2014

Contract Basics: Subsidiary Rights

As I mentioned in my previous Publishing Contracts post, this time we’re focusing on subsidiary rights and what those mean for your contract.

Subsidiary rights can include translated editions, reprints (2nd editions, for instance), and audio rights; re-workings such as TV/film, live stage, webisodes, and video games; and “derivative products” such as clothes, notebooks, candy, etc.—basically anything that could potentially make money when related to your book.  A publisher may ask for every subsidiary right imaginable, or only for a few—or they may ask for some major ones at the deal points stage and assume you would also agree to a bunch of others they consider less important, which they will then include in the contract, so read carefully!

One thing you have to decide for yourself is which subsidiary rights you’re willing to sign over. Agent Kristin Nelson recommends hanging on to as many as possible and leveraging the ones you release for a higher advance. This makes sense if you either have an agent who will work to sell those rights or are planning on adding "actively exploiting these rights on your own" to your To Do list. This also makes sense if you have reason to believe that the publisher will not effectively pursue making deals with those subsidiary rights, which will then just sit uselessly in the publisher’s control.
  • Remember, for any rights you give up, the publisher will be entitled to some portion of the money earned, even if you were to do 100% of the work to make that deal!  Finances will be discussed more in-depth in an upcoming post.

On the other hand, if you aren’t in the position to exploit subsidiary rights on your own behalf, it is in my opinion smarter to negotiate a fair agreement with a publisher who actively pursues subsidiary rights deals rather than letting all those rights go to waste. Though you will have to share the proceeds, a percentage of $1,000 is much better than even 100% of the $0 you would earn without that deal. 

Still, you may not be willing to have either your name or your book’s title associated with, for instance, a line of pencils, particularly if that deal only made you $100. Or perhaps you want a movie made from your book, but don’t want a sequel made up on your behalf and without your approval. So, it is important to ensure that you have some say in which deals are accepted – I’d even go so far as to recommend negotiating a reasonable right of refusal, which means a deal cannot be signed without your approval.
  • I’d honestly recommend also having that be part of your contract with an agent. Once you have an established relationship with your agent or publisher and their track record of negotiating kickass deals on your behalf, you can always begin giving your approval without reading too deeply into a given deal. First, though, you should pay attention to the direction in which your career is being taken.

    We all hope that we will choose the right people with whom to go into business, but none of us wants to fall into that percentage of people who made a mistake and then didn’t pay enough attention to catch it early enough to avoid serious fallout.

So, in conclusion: 
  • Subsidiary rights are a bargaining chip, so don't throw them away.
  • If you don't have a proactive agent or the time + connections + skills + desire to promote subsidiary rights related to your book, and the offering publisher does have a solid record of selling those rights, it's better to receive a fair percentage of those sales than to hold on to the rights without exploiting them.
  • It's best to have input on which subsidiary deals are made or accepted on your behalf.

Next up:  Publication Clauses
Questions? Thoughts? Corrections? Please leave them in the comments!

This post is a part of my Publishing Contracts sequence. Please click here to learn more about it and view the very important disclaimer.


  1. Thanks Aria. I'm just getting started in this process so any advice I can get is greatly appreciated.

    1. I hope you find it useful, Monica! I'll be posting more in this series every Monday for a while.