To Automate or Not to Automate the Rights Business?

In Discussion by Hannah Johnson

On Friday, rights professionals gathering at the Penguin Random House Building in New York to discuss trends and issues in the global rights business

On Friday, rights professionals gathering at the Penguin Random House Building in New York to discuss trends and issues in the global rights business.

At a Publishers Weekly event in NYC, rights directors and agents discussed how automation and standards would improve the book rights business.

By Hannah Johnson

Rights departments at publishing companies face a tough question every day: how can we accomplish more in less time? What can we automate in a business so dependent on face-to-face meetings and personal relationships?

Last Friday, Publishers Weekly organized an event for rights professionals to address these very questions. What became clear is that, currently, there is are definitive solutions. But there is hope…

Dealing with Massive Workloads

For the rights departments at publishing companies large and small, time is a precious resource. These teams handle hundreds and even thousands of rights deals each year. But a handshake at the Frankfurt Book Fair is only the beginning. For each of these thousands of deals, the rights department must execute the contract, ensure that the advance is paid, the publication date is met, and then track the sales, check royalty statements — on it goes.

Kris Kliemann, VP and Director of Global Rights at Wiley, said that her department of 35 people handles over 4,000 rights deals each year. She signed 60 rights contracts the evening before this very event. “I’m in the volume business,” she said, “the more we can automate, the better.”

Internally, companies with sufficient resources are building or buying rights management systems to help them automatically track and manage all this information.

Denise Cronin, VP and Director of Subsidiary Rights at Penguin Random House, said that PRH has such a system, which was originally put into place by Random House. When Penguin and Random House merged in 2013, Cronin said that combining decades’ worth of rights information from these two behemoths was no easy feat. Imagine trying to transfer information from thousands and thousands of paper contracts, royalty statements and microfiche into an online database.

Still, not all publishers have digitized all their rights information. Literary scout Liz Gately said finding out what rights are available for a particular book can be a bit of a treasure hunt. While it’s “increasingly rare” that a rights deal won’t happen because nobody knows who owns the rights, publishers still sometimes have to scour their microfiche archives to find the answer.

Still Seeking a Solution

So how can we as an industry improve this situation? Surely the silver lining to the last decade of digital disruption should be that there are solutions to help us manage, share and analyze all this data.

Not yet, says Kliemann. “I’m still waiting for the software” that can populate a rights database from scanned royalty statements. And in fact, we are still waiting for royalty statements that have some kind of standardization, that can even be scanned.

Seth Dellon, Director of Product and Business Development for PubMatch, pointed out that rights departments don’t typically have large budgets for software development or workflow improvements, particularly at mid-sized and smaller houses. Extra money is typically allocated elsewhere.

Services like PubMatch that provide turnkey rights management systems are looking to fill this gap between the need for data management and underfunded rights departments.

When publishers are still receiving royalty statements from their licensees in all imaginable formats — PDFs, Excel documents, and even paper printouts — and without any uniformity in terms of the information they contain or the vocabulary they use, the remaining option is to enter the data by hand.

One agent in the audience said her company has an employee solely dedicated to managing and digitizing contracts and royalty statements.

Without any kind of standards for how the industry defines and expresses rights information, we are back to square one: how can we automate more?

In an impromptu statement, Julie Morris, Project Manager of Standards and Best Practices for BISG, said that in previous years, rights stakeholders believed that “the ROI for implementing standards wasn’t there.” Today, BISG’s rights committee is once again at work on defining standards and explaining the ROI of using these standards.

Based on what the panelists at Friday’s event said, there is no question that publishers and agents see the value in implementing standards. But the question of money still remains.

About the Author

Hannah Johnson


Hannah Johnson is the publisher of international book industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, which provides daily information and news about book markets around the world. In addition to building partnerships with international cultural and trade organizations, she works with the Frankfurt Book Fair to organize and support a number of its overseas initiatives. Hannah has also worked as the managing editor for an online media company, The Hooch Life, focused on craft distillers and cocktail experts. Prior to that, she worked as a project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office, managing various business and marketing activities.