Shark attack

Writers, pay close attention: This is why publishers are getting richer while you are getting poorer. Because, as I’ve commented elsewhere, aggressive exploitation of subsidiary rights is where publishers are able to grow fat at the expense of writers.

In advance of this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, due to commence on October 14, The Bookseller has shared a two-part list of the hot literary properties due to be hawked at the Frankfurter Buchmesse. Part One is now unfortunately locked away behind The Bookseller‘s paywall, but you can still access Part Two, as well as Part One and Part Two of the equivalent 2014 list, to give you even more of an idea.

The list goes agent by agent, with details on the titles offered to international publishers this year by each major agency. For instance, Darley Anderson Literary TV & Film Agency “takes début action thriller Nothing Short of Dying by Erik Storey,” with “North American rights sold to Scribner for six figures,” while “Defender by G X Todd is a début. UK and Commonwealth rights sold to Headline in a six-figure pre-empt.” Hardman & Swainson, meanwhile, has “playwright Miranda Emmerson’s début, Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars … a 1960-set literary mystery. Fourth Estate pre-empted UK and Commonwealth rights, excluding Canada.” Lucky old Janklow & Nesbit, meanwhile, has non-fiction by Ben Platts-Mills, with Tell Me the Planets, “acquired by Fig Tree in the UK after an eight-way auction,” and informs us that “there is an auction ongoing for début writer Nell Stevens’ Bleaker House, an account of how she tried and failed to write a great novel by going to live on an uninhabited island in the Falklands.”

That should give you some idea of the flavor of the list. Six-figure pre-empts; eight-way auctions: hotsa hotsa! And The Bookseller has already kindly shared with us the words of Jason Bartholomew, rights director for Hodder & Stoughton, Headline, John Murray Press, and Quercus, on how his team “work incredibly hard to help acquire and then sell our authors to as many territories as possible.” He quotes the example of Sarah Winman’s When God Was a Rabbit. “Within a few months of Headline acquiring the book, my team had finished auctions in about 25 territories.” How much of the revenue from all those territories went to the author, you wonder? Was Sarah Winman’s God-rabbiting properly compensated to the appropriate percentage in each of those 25 deals?

Actually, the UK Society of Authors is pushing for fairer contracts on precisely the grounds that publishers don’t explain the various rights and monetization opportunities to authors, and some agents may miss the fine print as well. But if you want to know why Big Publishing is growing bigger and more bloated, just take a look into the Frankfurt shark pool to watch the sharks circle each other.


  1. This obfuscation would seem to make digital self-publishing more attractive. The author’s percentage is clearly stated and as constant as currency conversion can make it. However, there are no advances and no one but the author is incentivized to promote the work.
    The question, then, is whether publishers provide value commensurate with their take? How would an author go about making such an assessment? Is there any data to analyze?
    I would guess that most authors are primarily interested in total revenue. Do we know what contract terms are most likely to maximize total revenue and be acceptable to a publisher?

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