Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Competitions and world rights

A writing competition (for novels) that I'm thinking of entering offers a cash prize plus publication. I notice in the small print however that the publishers reserve all world-wide publishing rights to the winning manuscript and all shortlisted manuscripts. Is this good or bad? Would the winner still get royalties on such things as foreign, movie or electronic rights?

There's a growing number of competitions in our island's publishing industry, so your question is timely and important.

It is customary for publishers to take worldwide rights for competition winners - okay, yeah, they have the writers over a barrel, so what can you do? But I have real problems with shortlisted writers (a) being told they can't submit elsewhere until the publishing company has decided whether they want to publish the novel or not and (b) being made to give up these rights while their status is in limbo, and even if it's not.

Foreign rights is a specialised area of the industry. I don't always advise my authors to hold onto their foreign rights so I can do something with them - sometimes the publisher will have a much better chance of placing the book overseas, and I'll tell the author that. It all depends on who we know and who publishes what, and it's important to do what's best for the book. So I'm not saying that publishers who take world rights in these competitions are inherently bad, because it may be good for the author if the publisher handles those rights. For example, if the author doesn't have an agent who can manage those rights for them, how are they going to exploit them otherwise? And for the winning manuscript, I can see why the publisher wants them: they've invested time in the competition, they've chosen a winner and now they're going to invest time and money in them. Thus, they want to have the opportunity to make back some of that money by selling foreign rights.

However, for the shortlisted writers this is not the case. The competition has served to bring their manuscripts to the publisher's attention, nothing more. They have not won; they will not automatically get an advance. The publisher is using the competition to find new talent, and that's fair enough, but the shortlisted writers should not then be subject to the same conditions as the winning manuscript. They should also be free to submit elsewhere. The Vogel Award, for example, is not an award for One Really Good Novel and Four Close Calls. It's an award for one novel alone. Once the winner is announced, the others should either be set free immediately or given a (short) time frame within which the publisher has exclusivity.

As for the royalties you mention, the author gets those - well, any money earned on sales of foreign rights or movie rights etc go against the advance, so you see royalties if you've earned out your advance. Any publishing contract that tells you that you're not entitled to a royalty on subsidiary rights (translation, movie and so on) is a contract you shouldn't sign.

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