Don’t Forget About Subsidiary Rights in Your Publishing Contract

subsidiary rights
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As you might know, subsidiary rights (which include merchandising and audio rights) are an important part of a traditional publishing contract. Yet most authors are so focused on the advance and other financial details that they forget about those other rights (audiobooks, foreign sales, merchandise, etc.).

Often, the publisher sells those rights to third parties—or never exercises them at all. Once that contract is signed, the author is at the mercy of whatever the publisher decides to do for any rights he or she did not negotiate to keep.

One of the last books I shepherded as an editor in traditional publishing was Healing Trauma Through Self-Parenting: The Codependency Connection* by Patricia O’Gorman, PhD and Phil Diaz, MSW, which was published in 2012.

Fast forward to 2015, and coauthor Patricia O’Gorman received an email from a fan who wrote to thank her for sharing “. . . the best book and most helpful book I have ever read (in this case, listened to) on this important, and very relevant to me, subject.”

Imagine Dr. O’Gorman’s surprise at learning from a reader, not from her publisher, that her book is now available as an audiobook! She wrote about the experience here.

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Many industry gurus are writing about the importance of understanding your subsidiary rights before you sign any contract (including contest entries and posting on third-party sites). As an author, you need to know what you’re giving up as well as what you’re getting when you sign on the dotted line.

Attorney Susan Spann advises that “authors should take care to ensure they grant the publisher only those rights the publisher has the capacity to fulfill in a meaningful manner.” When in doubt, seek legal council; giving up exploitable rights for the life of the copyright might not be in your best interest.

What About Contests, Self-Publishing, and Hybrid Publishing?

If you’re thinking, “I’m self-publishing, so I own all my rights,” be careful.

As attorney Helen Sedwick writes, “licenses are almost always non-exclusive,” but “There are exceptions, such as KDP Select where writers agree to sell their ebooks exclusively through Amazon for a 90-day period. Some self-pub companies such as BookBaby require exclusive rights in some areas.” Her article is well worth reading for examples of the rights grabs you could also run into, whether inside or outside of a traditional publishing contract.

Caveat Emptor

A publishing contract is a legal document that has the potential to help or harm your career as a writer. Don’t let the your excitement over the offer of a publishing contract trump your good judgment:

Understand what you’re signing (and how you’ll be affected in both the short and long term) before you sign anything.


*This important book explains how trauma is a driver of dysfunctional behaviors and is linked with codependency. It is a concise yet detailed resource for survivors of any type of trauma (as well as the professionals who work with them). Through a process modeled after the 12 Steps of AA, the book offers ways to heal your wounded inner core and reconnect to your inner child.


 Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be. Learn more here.


3 thoughts on “Don’t Forget About Subsidiary Rights in Your Publishing Contract”

  1. Thank you for this post Candace. I’m actually in the process or working on a series of ebooks and this information is so helpful and couldn’t be more timely. You’re a great resource!

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