The slide has been slow, but inexorable: Subsidiary Rights, once one of the biggest profit centers in publishing, has retreated over the years to a marginalized — though still essential — role in most houses. leaving foreign rights as the focus of many departments. With this reconstitution and reconfiguration, those in the business are finding that flexibility is key. Hyperion rights director Jill Sansone says her tanle at London or Frankfurt is as busy as ever, but she and her department fill any spare time they may have running their audio and calendar program. She’s also responsible for all the movie tie-ins that come to them via Disney’s Tocuhstone Pictures for which they always have world rights.
Meredith is another publisher who is focusing on foreign rights, but not because of any falloff in its domestic rights. Instead, says Editorial Director Linda Cunningham, its purview is broadening in response to a list that travels better abroad, and to efforts to increase its presence in foreign markets. Successful television shows like American Shopper, which is now launched in the UK, haven’t hurt (even though, in this case, rights belong to Haines).
The picture isn’t exactly rosy, even in foreign rights,as sales are down, especially to European publishers. Weak markets in places like Germany, resentment of US foreign policy and the rise of nationalism are all mentioned as possible causes. Meanwhile, more literary agents are holding on to these rights, giving publishers less to sell. (This is less true with illustrated books, which still need their foreign co-editions to make the numbers work on their U.S. edition.) And in a developing mini trend, some foreign rights departments are moving out of the US, to the publisher’s UK office when that option exists. Rodale moved its foreign rights to London several years ago and two academic publishers have indicated that they will do so in the next year.
The reconfiguration began in the early ’80s, as publisher consolidation eroded the rights market for paperbacks and by the mid-’90s book club consolidation squeezed those dollars too. At its height in the ’70s, sales of a book like Ragtime, or book club rights to The World According To Garp could bring in seven figures. Today’s paltry book club deals sometimes dip below a mere four figures, and most books are published in paperback by the original hardcover publisher. True there are exceptions, like James Patterson’s seven figure deal with Bookspan or Scribner’s sale to Harcourt of Temple Grandin’s ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION for significant six figures.
Even the smaller publishers, who would have auctioned their paperback rights in the past, are negotiating joint ventures with their paperback publishers in order to keep their authors happy. Walker shared Dava Sobel with Penguin and Harcourt has a relationship with MacAdam Cage, Audrey ( Time Traveller’s Wife) Niffenberger‘s publisher.
In fact, says Nina Hoffman, President of National Geographic Books and Education (and once a rights director) sub rights is an ever-decreasing profit center, to the point where now “It’s a marketing function as much as a sales function,” promoting authors and their books through serial sales and the like. At NGS the domestic sub rights department, along with special sales and custom publishing, reports into the sales department.
Susan Peterson at Baker & Taylor (also a former rights director) said that she sees the subrights market as increasingly being audio, large print and foreign rights. But even there, audio and other electronic rights are now migrating to distribution deals, handled by the sales department or an electronic publishing division.
Others agree that the distinction between the sale of the physical book, and the sale of an intangible – the right to recreate an ebook or allow the downloading of an audiobook (or some part thereof) – is quickly dissolving. One academic publisher, for instance, is folding its domestic rights into to its electronic database division. S&S now sells its audiobooks – including digital downloads – through its sales department.
Random ‘s Claire Tisne says that “the rights world is changing, but not necessarily getting smaller; it’s repositioning itself.” As the role of rights changes, Tisne seized upon the importance of looking at rights as an “extension of editorial” and emphasizing the importance of “tightening” the relationship between rights and editorial as much as possible. For Free Press EVP and Publisher Martha Levin (yet another ertstwhile rights director), it’s the relationship between the rights department and publicity that she considers important, especially on serial rights where co-ordinating them with the book’s publicity campaign is key.
At the end of the day, though, says Houghton Mifflin’s Debbie Engel, there are still many rights that still have to be sold. Book club advances are lower but the books still have to be submitted and can still earn the same money over time. Permissions has become a bigger source of revenue (see PT September 2004), and children’s rights continue to be very strong. Determined to make its rights processing efficient, and its records complete, HM invested in Nextance, an electronic contract and rights management system, which went live in late November in the trade and reference division. The other divisions will follow at some future time.