‘Starting To Hit the Wall’: A Conference Focuses on Publishing Rights

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

‘Things are not going to stop changing,’ Ingenta’s Randy Petway told Monday’s Rights Conference audience. And that means new urgency around effective rights management.
Publishing Perspectives' Rights and Content Conference was held Monday (June 13) at New York University's Kimmel Center

Publishing Perspectives’ Rights and Content Conference was held Monday (June 13) at New York University’s Kimmel Center. Image: Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘The Deeper End of the Culture Pool’
The rising importance of a mindful, purposeful, aggressive approach to rights management in publishing was phrased many ways during the course of Monday’s conference, Rights and Content in the Digital Age, organized by Publishing Perspectives in the Grand Hall at New York University’s Kimmel Center.

“The only writers who can afford to work without pay are hobbyists.”Roxana Robinson, Authors Guild

One of the most intriguing images for the potential value of what book publishing has to offer came from digital content strategist Matt Dellinger, who has done a lot of work in archival content with The New Yorker, Esquire, and other magazines:

“The future of content is more and more about the history of content,” Dellinger said. “It’s a matter of taking the deeper end of the culture pool and circulating it in the kiddie pool of snack-food content.”

From Dellinger and other speakers—and as much in regard to frontlist as backlist—the message was clear: More orchestrated, coordinated, and supported approaches to the management of rights is fast becoming a major key for publishers at a time when sales are challenged in saturated markets: a failure to exploit rights to the fullest, most efficient degree possible is something publishers can’t afford.

Ingenta Chief Revenue Officer Randy Petway’s presentation pointed to how minimal investment has traditionally been made by publishers in the infrastructure of rights departments—something later echoed in comments by longtime rights specialist Kris Kliemann, formerly of Wiley.

Two Opening Speeches

The day opened with a keynote address from author Roxana Robinson, President since 2014 of the Authors Guild, who warned of the mounting difficulties authors are facing in finding compensation of their work in digitally complicated markets.

Roxana Robinson

Roxana Robinson

“Suppose you want to buy a copy of my newest novel, Sparta,” Robinson said, “which was published in 2013. If you go to Amazon, you will find that they offer a new paperback for $12.98. And also another new paperback for $4.33. And a used paperback for one penny.

“Now, why would you choose to buy the more expensive copy, the $12.99 paperback instead of the $4.33 paperback? They’re both new. You’ll buy the cheaper one. But where does that $4.33 paperback come from? It’s probably a copy the publisher sold off to make room in a warehouse somewhere. It’s very common. Publishers have high hopes for every book they make, they make more copies than can sell…After a certain period of time, they realize they need that space in the warehouse, so they sell off copies cheap to a jobber, a middleman. They sell them at a very deep discount.

“Many contracts have clauses that will allow the publisher, under these circumstances of deep discount, to pay no royalties. The publisher gets paid by the middleman. And the middleman gets paid. Only the author will get nothing at all for the sale of this book which she just wrote…The publishers know this. But they do it [sell at discount to middleman vendors] because they want some money now.”

Robinson also touched on the Guild’s unsuccessful efforts to sway the courts against Google Books’ scanning without permission or compensation the entire texts of copyrighted books. The US Supreme Court declined a request for an appeal in April. (You can read the Guild’s viewpoint on the case, which ran from 2005’s initial filing to April of this year.)

“The only writers who can afford to work without pay,” Robinson said, “are hobbyists.”

Ingenta’s Randy Petway followed Robinson’s keynote in agreement with Robinson on the pivotal place of authors in the debate:

Randy Petway

Randy Petway

“Roxana [Robinson] spoke about the impact that all this is having on authors. And that’s very important because authors are obviously the lifeblood for publishers. And if we’re not careful—I’m sure you’re finding some of this already—you’ll end up with a scenario in which you’re losing your authors because they’re just having to step out of the business as a whole or they’ll find alternate channels, to be able to sustain an income. Or the other scenario is the one which the author becomes an adversary, if they don’t feel you’re doing enough as an advocate to protect the rights of the content they provide to you.”

Mentioning “this fundamental pressure that’s on the price of content,” Petway said, “there’s this perception that in the Internet world that [content] should be free” and that it costs much less to produce.

The crux of Petway’s message was that publishing is a rights business and the benefits of a strong rights program are too compelling not to put everything possible into having one. Good management of rights, he said, results in protection of intellectual property (IP); expansion into new territories (in media and formats as well as in markets); maximization of the backlist’s value; adaptation to reader tastes; and increased revenue overall.

“Things are not going to stop changing, And the pace of change is not going to slow down.”Randy Petway, Ingenta

To that end, Petway recommends publishers undertake an extensive rights portfolio audit, that includes a firm understanding of their “systems and processes,” the necessary technology needed to track and capitalize on their rights opportunities. Automation “makes your life much easier” and lets you know exactly how you’re impacting cash flow, he said.

“I’m not saying everybody needs a million-dollar system,” Petway said. But publishers need to know how well their systems can scale up to where they intend to take their businesses, and that includes how capable a rights department is in responding to queries “without the whole department coming to a screeching halt.”

“Things are not going to stop changing,” Petway said. “And the pace of change is not going to slow down.” Publishers’ ability to develop new rights opportunities and manage their outcomes is becoming more pivotal, not less, he said, in the digital dynamic.

The conference's innovation panel included, from left, Erin L. Cox, Adam Gomolin, Philippa Donovan, Lucas Wittmann, and Andy Hunter. Image: Porter Anderson

The conference’s innovation panel included, from left, Erin L. Cox, Adam Gomolin, Philippa Donovan, Lucas Wittmann, and Andy Hunter. Image: Porter Anderson

New Models

In a panel on “Publishing Innovation, Experiments, and the Future of Intellectual Property,” Los Angeles-based literary consultant Philippa Donovan told Cox that “Reading is really cool in LA right now” because the studios—especially with the advent of Netflix and Amazon Studios’ levels of production—are eager for original content.

“You have this real energy in what’s being put on the screen,” Donovan said. “It’s very competitive.”

“We live in a world where two million books are being published each year…The quality of literature from non-traditional sources is higher than ever.”Adam Gomolin, Inkshares

Her Smart Quill service is a transplanted literary consultancy from London, now in the States for a couple of years and working extensively with screenwriters. “It feels like the market has completely opened up,” Donovan told the audience, thanks to the arrival of the streaming services. “They’re looking at backlist in ways they’ve never done before. So much synergy there.”

Lucas Wittmann of Regan Arts mentioned his own journalistic background (Newsweek, and the Daily Beast team) with his interest and ability in creating fast-turn books.

After the attacks in Paris, for example, he helmed a two-month process in producing Regan Arts’ April release, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan.

Andy Hunter, whose Electric Literature partnered with Grove Atlantic to launch Literary Hub, pointed out that his programs (which also include Catapult) do pay writers. One of the challenges of trying to promote and nourish literary writing in online settings, he pointed out, is that “You can’t really go to advertisers with 500,000 users or 1 million users. You need at least five times that much” to attract serious advertising revenue.

“The publishing ecosystem does actually pay writers. So rights-holders and making sure people still pay for books?—That’s one of the driving forces,” Hunter said.

“In the largest sense, all conversation about books online serves to promote.”

He mentioned Patreon, in which users contribute to writers and other artists they support. “Kickstarter is similar, helping to fund projects. And as a whole, I hope that we will be able to convince advertisers that book buyers and writers are an incredibly valuable demographic, they are people who create and shape our culture and drive our cultural dialogue.”

“I hope that we will be able to convince advertisers that book buyers and writers are an incredibly valuable demographic.”Andy Hunter, Catapult, Literary Hub, Electric Lit

Adam Gomolin joined the panel from the “crowd-driven” Inkshares, at which 250 pre-orders for an author’s project will get it published with a split of 50 percent to the author on ebooks (the rate most author advocates would like to see, industry-wide, in digital formats) and 70 percent to the author on print.

“There are these amazing companies competing to provide services for authors,” Gomolin said. “We live in a world where two million books are being published each year…The quality of literature from non-traditional sources is higher than ever.”

Part of generating new models that work, Gomolin said, is “reinvigorating old models…Our mission hasn’t deviated in two years. We want to be the first stop for stories and ideas.”

From the presentation by Ingenta's Randy Petway.

From the presentation by Ingenta’s Randy Petway.

International Range

Michael Healy, Executive Director of International Relations with Copyright  Clearance Center, brought a sobering but incisive look at the many hotspots in various parts of the world in which copyright protections are being tested, usually in the interest of widening the definition of “fair use” in educational and library settings.

Noting that Canada’s adjustments of its copyright protections has reduced licensing revenue there from several million dollars a year to “almost zero,” he warned that publishers’ rights departments need to be aware of copyright hot spots in the world, following the actions of courts and governments in the copyright space on an international basis.

“Wherever I go,” Healy said, “I see the same symptoms of the same debate. You go to somewhere like Latin America, a place like Brazil. There’s new copyright legislation coming any time now to Brazil, which is profoundly hostile to people like yourselves [in publishing].

“Europe is a hugely challenging place for copyright…Spain, Ireland, and so on. All they tell ms is that the governments are implacably hostile” to the interests of rights-holders.

“If we’re not careful you’ll end up with a scenario in which you’re losing your authors…if they don’t feel you’re doing enough as an advocate to protect the rights of the content they provide to you.”Randy Petway, Ingenta

In many of the challenges to copyright Healy sees, publishers simply aren’t considered legitimate rights-holders. “Taken in aggregate, these are serious situations,” he said, describing “multi-pronged assaults on copyright.”

New licensing regimes in places including Ghana and the Philippines are good to see, he said, but then you look at the Middle East and find that except in places like Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, “there’s no collective licensing infrastructure,” even as the “Canadian flu” seems to be impacting thinking in South Africa, the UK, and South Africa.

Rights specialist Kris Kliemann spoke about rights operations decades ago, dependent on “flimsies” and carbon paper. “We compiled photocopies of manuscripts…The channels we had then, many don’t exist now.” There was a fear that audio would take over print books,” she said, although “audio” meant boxes of tapes arriving in consumers’ mail.

“At Farrar Straus, we had a Telex machine” but no one in the office knew how to use it efficiently,” Kliemann said, a warning to today’s publishers that upgrading and enhancing rights systems also requires training and enabling staff to handle the tech.

HarperCollins Global Strategy Director Kerry Saretsky talked about what a carefully made, bespoke decision and plan is created in the case of multi-territorial releases. In instances like last year’s high-profile Go Set a Watchman release, the key is Harper’s coordination of 18 regional international teams, and it means, Saretsky said, “that we’re able to provide authors a service for on-the-ground publishing across markets.

“We take each author and genre and book” individually, she said, and evaluate how that author and title perform in each market.

Two of the tips that Kliemann provided: (1) Get past paper contracts if at all possible—it’s time for publishing to move to electronic signatures and digitally formatted contracts. (2) Watch for which titles in a backlist are getting permissions requests—those are clues to potential rights to be exploited.

The 'Other Industries' panel featured, from left, Euvin Weeber, Erin L. Cox, Matt Dellinger, and Douglas Chilcott. Image: Porter Anderson

The ‘Other Industries’ panel featured, from left, Euvin Weeber, Erin L. Cox, Matt Dellinger, and Douglas Chilcott. Image: Porter Anderson

Other Industries

A final panel brought forward some of the observations that Audiam’s Euvin Weeber brings from the music industry’s struggles in digital and the resulting rights apparatus his company services as a collection agency. The free tier on Spotify, for example, draws wider crowds, which might be good for exposure of an artist’s music, but the royalties on that part of the platform are even smaller than the tiny compensation for a song streamed on the main subscription.

“Our attention spans are getting shorter,” Weeber said. “And that’s starting to hit the wall.”

As for the discoverability potential of having your music on Spotify, he said, there’s not a lot of marketing lift there unless you have a label that can get you onto the home page. Most artists are on Spotify to be in the place where users are looking for and accessing music. The social aspect of sharing playlists, he said, “begins to put the humanity back into content.”

Doug Chilcott of TED said that the brand does produce discoverability for so many of its speakers who aren’t known widely before their exposure through TED.

So popular is the localized TEDx series that there are 10 such events per day produced in different parts of the world.

“The growth of TED has been organic…Asia is our fastest-growing audience. And what to do with those TED Talks that aren’t in the English language? Arabic, Hebrew and Chinese are the fastest-growing languages in TED Talks, he said.

And in the final analysis, it was back to Matt Dellinger, the digital strategist.

“Our attention spans are getting shorter. And that’s starting to hit the wall.”Euvin Weeber, Audiam

“We have this stuff,” he said. The content. The challenge, he said, “is the plumbing. How do we deliver it?”

And the tenor of the day seemed to suggest that while we don’t know the answers to that question yet, there’s quickly rising pressure—and newly devised potential aids like the digital rights platform options of IPR License and PubMatch—to get publishing’s house of rights in order.

“If the ideas are rich enough and both publisher and reader feel connected,” Cox said, in closing the day, “then rights management can be effective.”


Rights and Content in the Digital Age was sponsored by Ingenta and Copyright Clearance Center.

More on the conference:

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. Prior to that he was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, a channel at The Bookseller focused on digital publishing. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.