Know Your Rights! How to turn a publishing deal into a feature film

Publisher Allen and Unwin's rights manager gives us the skinny on contracts, adaptations, and making your rights work for you.

The old saying about ‘win-win contracts’ is really important when writers, publishers and filmmakers get together on a journey which can ultimately take a long time. What can print and screenwriters do to make this work for them?

Transferring a work from book to big screen can be a cash cow or a car crash. Being savvy about how you treat your publishing rights can help you transform from an Australian classic into a film, a stage play, and an international break out. But these contracts can be daunting.

We asked Maggie Thompson, rights manager for Allen & Unwin, to tell us all about signing a publishing contract that balances creative control with financial smarts. She told us that, ‘the minimum you can give a publisher is the right to publish a book (usually in print and ebook), in a specific territory (usually Australia), for a specific amount of time.’ Everything else is negotiable: whether you’re giving your publisher adaptation, translation and international rights, how long for, and under what conditions.

Producers will be used to dealing directly or through an intermediary, mostly an agent for an established writer or breakout success. But good independent producers can pick up literary works which are not considered to be obvious treasures. The Dressmaker is a good example.

1. Read your contract, Einstein

Understanding your contract, and what rights they are giving to the publisher, is fundamental. Thompson tells us that the author should look at every single clause themselves, and make sure to seek clarification on any element that they don’t understand. ‘If a publisher is asking you for something, they should be able to tell you why they are asking for it. It’s their job to answer those questions. You should look particularly closely at: advance, royalty rate, territory, term, format and the sublicense clause. 

‘If and when you decide to give your rights to a publisher, you should also then look at the percentage of income you would be allowing the publisher to take for making those sales. There may well be an opportunity to negotiate on them.

Sometimes signing away your rights is framed as “giving something away,” but more often than not, it’s to your benefit. It allows you the chance to trust an expert with worldwide networks and contacts, and a profile they’ve built over years of work, to advocate for your work on a global scale.’

2. Going Global

Selling a book in international territories can have an enormous and life-changing impact, in both commercial and literary terms. So how do you make that happen? ‘When you sign a contract, you have to make the decision whether to give your primary publisher the world rights of your book, or just the rights to publish it in certain territories.’ There are a few things to consider here.

‘On one hand, selling rights internationally is really hard! Even very experienced rights people get told “no” a lot. The chances of getting an international rights deal are much lower if you’re managing it on your own, rather than leaving that work to someone whose job it is to sell on your territorial rights.’

That said, depending on your publisher, the person dealing with your rights might not be specifically be a rights person. ‘This is especially true at smaller presses, where it’s standard for editors also go to book fairs, or maintain good contacts that can be used in rights sales. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something to consider. If you have an agent either in Australia or overseas, they might be the best person to negotiate those deals on your behalf.’

3. Making it on the big screen

While trusting a publisher with all rights has its benefits, there are various reasons you might decide to hold onto specific rights, particularly subrights. ‘For example, if you’re a screenwriter who is publishing your first novel, you might want to be able to control how and when your book is adapted to film, and by whom. Perhaps you have great connections to film producers, and you already know who you want to send the book to for adaptation. Maybe you don’t want your work adapted into certain forms at all! Retaining particular rights can give you more creative control.’

That said, It’s not all or nothing! ‘You can give the subrights to your publisher under specific terms, such as for a limited period of time. You can also ask that they revert to you in specific circumstances.’

Ultimately, Thompson says the underlying question is simple. ‘What you need to ask is: is this the best place for the rights to be? Will there be someone working actively to sell these rights on my behalf, and do they have the knowledge, skills, experience and contacts to sell these for me in a way that is most advantageous for me as a writer in the short and long term?’

‘That said: contracts are contracts, and negotiation is a skill. Regardless of your own industry insight, it’s worth considering that an agent or rights seller might be in a better position to get you a good deal.’

As any experienced agent or screenwriter will tell you, the single most important thing you have to sell is the rights to a potential franchise. 

Jini Maxwell is a writer and curator who lives in Naarm. They are an assistant curator at ACMI, where they also host the Women & Non-binary gamers club. They write about videogames and the people who make them. You can find them on Twitter @astroblob