Be a Writer – Part Four: Copy Rights

When your book gets accepted for publication, you will be sent a contract to sign. It’s likely that you will want to sign on the dotted line as quick as you can and send it straight back, just in case the person who offered to publish your book changes their mind. But it’s at this stage that you really should start to get to grips with the complex world of rights that surrounds written material. I’m no legal expert, so my best advice is for you to join the Society of Authors and use their free contract reading service. However, I do have some advice that I have picked up from 20 years of reading publishing contracts that you might find helpful in understanding the complexities of what you’re being asked to sign. Here are my ten top tips for understanding your ‘copy rights’.

1. Publishing contracts vary quite a bit in length – from a couple of pages to twenty or more. I’m not going to lie and tell you that they’re particularly interesting to read, but it really is a good idea to get to grips with what you are reading. This is a legal document that you are about to sign.

2. You own the copyright to your own writing when you write it – it’s a myth that you have to post it to yourself to prove that you own it, although it’s not a bad idea to put the little © and your name somewhere on your work, just in case. There is no copyright in ideas or titles, only in the expression of them. It’s your writing that you are copy righting, not anything else – if you think of it as no one being allowed to take a photocopy of what you’ve written without paying you, you’ll get somewhere close to what you’re getting (this is why you need to join the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society as well). If you want to copyright your ideas you would have to branch out into the field of patents or trademarks, but that’s not how writing works.

3. When you sign a publishing contract you are asked to assign the rights to your work, which is not the same thing as handing over the copyright. You still own the copyright, but you grant the publishers the right to publish your work in certain territories. Most publishers ask for worldwide rights and if you’re a new writer you won’t have much choice but to grant them this. At some point, the copyright may revert to you (for instance, if the book goes out of print). Pay close attention to clauses that outline this in your contract.

4. Unless you sell your copyright, you own it for your lifetime and, for written material, generally speaking for 70 years after you die. Sometimes authors will do ‘work for hire’, in which case they do not own the copyright, but instead get paid a fixed fee for the work that they do.

5. Your royalty payments will be based on the terms set out in your contract, so pay close attention to these. Your royalty will usually be based on “net receipts” which is sadly not the same thing as the sale price of your book. This term describes the amount of money that your publishers receive from the outlets that sell your book. Sales might only net your publisher 40% of the list price and so your royalty will be based on that.

6. While it’s not usual to negotiate royalties for your first book, there is certainly no harm in having a try. No halfway decent publisher will judge you for this, but be realistic. One handy option is to ask for a ‘rising royalty’, to allow you to get rewarded for high sales – the royalty rises after x number of sales.

7. Check how and when your royalties will be paid – you can usually expect this to be twice yearly, in arrears, and typically it will be 3 months after the end of the sales period. To put that simply, royalties on sales from January to June would be paid in September. Once you add the time you will spend writing the book, and the production period (up to 7 months in some cases), it can be a long time before you see any money from your book.

8. You’ll be asked to fulfill certain criteria, in order for your book to be published. It will have to be the right length, and of good enough quality. You will be asked for a submission date and you should think carefully before agreeing this. It is far far better to be known as an author who meets her deadlines than to be known as one who doesn’t submit on time. I’ll never forget the exasperation an editor once shared with me about most of her authors not meeting their deadlines. Aim not to be the person who upsets her editor.

9. Look closely at the clauses around sub licences. A sub licence is any use of your material that is not covered by the main assignment. This could include serialisation in a magazine, translations, agreements to print in a different format and other uses of your work. (Dream about film rights if you’re writing an amazing novel!)

10. Although it’s never a good idea to believe that your book is going to find easy success, when you read your contract it is a great idea to think about what might happen if you did actually win the lottery and find yourself having written a best selling book. Don’t sell yourself short but don’t worry too much – you can always renegotiate for the 2nd edition.

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