Intellectual Property: The Big Picture for Authors

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Today’s guest post is by literary agent Ethan Ellenberg (@royaltyreminder), founder of Royalty Reminder.


Book publishing has changed dramatically over the last twenty years, and authors of all stripes have new opportunities to manage. Whether you are a long-time author with published work and contracts, or you are a self-published or “hybrid” author with some titles self-published and some licensed to publisher-partners, you need to do some serious thinking and track all of those licenses. This is truly a life-long journey for all writers and their heirs. The earlier you start comprehensively tracking this information, the better.

Let me sketch the big picture, which has two foundation blocks: copyright and the internet. First, copyright in most cases is the life of the author plus 70 years. This is your property—only you have the right to exploit it. The second, the internet, has many distinct but interrelated consequences, and involves two key elements for authors: digital versions of your work and 24/7/365 marketing worldwide.

Subsidiary rights and the internet

Ebooks can be produced, published, and marketed around the world at very low cost. This goes for original ebooks, but you can also revert rights to out-of-print titles and re-publish them digitally.

The same is true of audiobooks. Granted, producing them can be expensive, but the revenue potential in this growing market is enormous. There are platforms where voice acting talent will agree to split royalties (Findaway Voices or ACX), which can bring down upfront production cost. We aren’t quite there yet, but one can imagine a similar partnership with a translation partner in France, Germany, Turkey, etc.

It goes further. The internet giants are warring over TV streaming, spending by the billions. Spotify is trying to build a massive podcast business. A new venture capital backed short-form video streaming platform called Quibi plans to spend $500 million acquiring content before it even launches. It’s still early, but it appears as though each of these will be their own subrights—TV separate from short-form video, and podcast separate from audiobook.

Now, I’m not saying that you will be able to monetize each subright for every one of your titles. But the picture is clear—creators have never had more power. The world is hungry for storytelling in a plethora of mediums that seem to be spawning by the minute. And it’s all because the internet has enabled new formats, new markets, and fluid pipes.

This is a challenging task. To help with that, I’ve provided an overview for different author types on how to maintain your rights and income.

Authors with print books through a traditional publisher

For books that can be reverted to you or have already been reverted, you need to consider their potential as ebooks, print-on-demand editions and other opportunities that exist now or may emerge, as noted above. Consider:

  • Are my books in print?
  • What formats are in print — hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, ebook, audiobook?
  • Are my books in print in all the right formats?
  • Are my books ever marketed or promoted?
  • Am I receiving royalty statements? Am I making any money?
  • Can any of my books be helped by a new cover or price change?
  • What subsidiary rights has my publisher sold? What is the status of those licenses/editions? Are they making any money?  If they are translation or audio licenses, have I seen the royalty statements?

At my literary agency, we have seen substantial revenue generated by ebooks and audiobooks, two formats that your older books may not be in yet. If books are out of print and/or your publisher is willing to revert rights to you, revert those rights and make plans to pursue a second life for them. Be patient but be persistent. Have sound suggestions for how to help your backlist grow.

If your agent or agency is still active and performing services for you, all this work can be performed by them or by them in concert with you. Work with your agent but don’t feel that your agency agreement precludes you from pitching in and being an active author. Be a diplomat and work to sustain your career, protect your books and earn the income that you deserve.

Authors who are self-published or hybrid

Many self-published authors run complex, small businesses in addition to being prolific writers. Though for the most part they are dealing with a very different landscape, they also have to manage a great deal of information about their books and think about the future. With multiple accounts paying monthly balances, it’s key to be organized. Below are just some of the many items you need to keep track of.

  • What platforms are you on? Review their sales.
  • What platforms are you marketing on? Are you also creating social media ads and leveraging other channels?
  • Are you in Kindle Unlimited or are you using a “wide” model with distribution at many retailers?
  • Is it time to change your cover or price? Are there any other promotions out there worth exploring?
  • What rights have you licensed out? For how long?
  • What rights do you still control? What can you do with them?

Literary executors and estate planning

Besides generating more income for yourself, it’s important to track these licenses and agreements for your heirs. You may not be immortal, but the books you’ve written could be. This is true especially if you make arrangements in your will for who will manage your literary estate after you are gone.

A literary executor is the person entrusted with the management of a deceased author’s literary property (published and unpublished), including overseeing copyrights, making and maintaining contracts with publishers or book retailers, licensing rights, and collecting royalties.

You can designate any willing person to be your literary executor. But it is best to pick someone who understands publishing, who can ensure your works are handled so that they continue to be available to readers and generate income for your heirs.

Having all this information in one place makes it easier for you—and, in the future, your literary executor—to track all your contracts. Decisions must be made on how to generate the greatest earning potential for the length of the copyright plus 70 years after your death. I know estate planning and thinking about your will can be uncomfortable, but preparing and organizing your intellectual property information is the best way for your books to continue to generate earnings now and for decades to come.


Note from Jane: Ethan Ellenberg has created Royalty Reminder, a software platform that offers a cloud-based searchable index of all your contracts and sends reminders about contract expirations and royalties due. It also helps you track which licenses remain in your possession. Authors can now create their own accounts, and Ellenberg is seeking beta testers to help him make the tool as useful as possible for all authors. You’ll get three months free, with no cost for onboarding. If you’re interested in being part of an early group of writers shaping what this platform looks like, please contact Ethan.

Posted in Business for Writers, Guest Post.

Ethan Ellenberg opened his literary agency in late 1984 after holding contract management positions at both Bantam and Berkley/Jove. He represents a wide range of book authors, though his specialty is commercial fiction. He is an acknowledged expert on the practical aspects of publishing including the publishing agreement and royalty accounting, and a long-time industry observer and author advocate. He founded Royalty Reminder in 2017 to support authors and their heirs with organization of their agreements, contracts, licenses and royalty statements to help them generate the greatest earning potential of their literary property.

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BK Jackson
BK Jackson

As a writer, I found the information very useful. As a reader, I found the post very timely, and I wanted to throw in my 2 cents as a reader why managing your backlist is so important. In the last couple of days, I was searching out a specific type of fiction I wanted to read both based on genre and historical information. I found a website that listed several books and zeroed in on one in particular because it seemed like just the read I wanted. The book was published in 2011, and was available in paperback, but judging… Read more »

Ethan Ellenberg

Hi Mr. Jackson, Thanks for your comment and it’s a great illustration of a lot of the issues that concern me. First, ‘front list’ is only a small part of the publishing world contrary to what we see all the time. Many readers discover older books, sometimes much older books that they love. In fiction it’s common for a reader to read one book by an author and then search out everything they’ve written. So discoverability is a wide and deep pond. Second is format and availability. Books can be published as hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, ebook and… Read more »

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