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From Frankfurt: Rights Directors Advise “Don’t Assume Anything”

By Erin L. Cox

Yesterday’s International Rights Directors Meeting, entitled “Off the Page! — New Ways to Sell New Rights,” focused on the impact of digital publishing on the role of rights directors — the challenges, the successes, and the important “don’t assume anything” mandate for both rights directors and literary agents.

Chairperson David Bowers, Vice President of Global Business Development for Oxford University Press, kicked off the meeting by sharing sales figures that proved why e-rights were of particular importance to this year’s meeting. In the US alone, e-book sales for 2010 are expected to hit $500 million, almost double what it was in 2009.

With book sales declining and an increased influx of e-reading devices in the marketplace, it is important for rights directors to understand the pitfalls and highlight some of the most important questions they should address in negotiations.

Jean McGinley, Director of Subsidiary Rights for HarperCollins Children’s Books talked about The Amanda Project, a publishing program Publishing Perspectives reported on in April, and the challenge of selling transmedia rights (such as interactive websites, iPhone/iPad apps, film/television) abroad. McGinley noted that affordability and communication were of great importance to getting foreign publishers interested, but the most important message was that rights people should start looking at the book/transmedia properties as a global product from the beginning of the publishing process and design/prepare accordingly. The earlier foreign publishers can get involved, the more likely they be able to publish these books as the author originally intended.

Lynette Owens, Copyright Director for Pearson Eduction, offered a different perspective. Looking back on her 20 years in the business, she noted that e-books had not had the same impact on the academic market. Instead, Owens’ talk addressed some of the important questions rights directors should be asking, such as how competitive is an e-book with the corresponding print edition, should publishers with established e-book distribution platforms, and should they insist on DRM for their content.

Because there has been much debate about publishers pricing of e-books, a question was posed about traditional distribution vs. the agency models. From the audience, Diane Spivey, Rights and Contracts Director for Little, Brown Group, offered her thoughts, “The people we are dealing with [in e-book sales] are in the business of selling hardware, not software. They are willing to sell our books as a loss-leader. Publishing with the agency model is our way of taking back control of our authors’ work.”

Teri Tobias, lawyer and literary agent for Teri Tobias Agency, LLC, not only seconded Spivey’s statement of valuing the content, but also highlighted many agents who maximized the benefits to their writers by taking on the role of publisher to work with e-book retailers directly, including Rosetta Books, Diversion Books, and the much-talked about and disputed Andrew Wylie’s Odyssey Editions.
Citing Random House’s conflict with Wylie as an example, Tobias noted that, whether frontlist or backlist, publishers cannot assume that just because they have print rights that they have e-rights. Tobias also affirmed that, despite some agents negotiating deals directly with e-tailers, agents and publishers must work together instead of at cross-purposes in order to benefit these writers, “Our goal is to keep the author’s work alive. [But, as we figure it out], there is likely to be some carnage along the way.”

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