Rights and royalty decisions

For many years, many publishers have struggled to organise electronic rights to their backlist. And it is not always simple to include electronic rights in new contracts, because thre are so many possible forms that a book might take in a digital world.

When dealing with backlist titles, some publishers have painstakingly renegotiated rights with as many authors as they can, and simply left a great many books in paper only. Others have acted unilaterally, making a blanket offering to all authors for electronic rights, and negotiating only when certain authors challenge that offer.

Either approach is fine. The only thing that matters is that you make a clear decision about how you will manage electronic rights to back- and frontlist titles.

These rights do get far more complicated when a book contains third-party content, like poems or images, for which you paid a flat fee for particular distribution terms (e.g. ‘5000 paperback copies for South African schools’).

When dealing with backlist titles with complex permissions, it may be best to come back to them later. Rather focus your energy on using technology to make it easy for people to find and buy the print edition.

In 2016 Teresa Elsey wrote a fascinating piece on managing ebook backlists that talks about on these issues.


Most ebook distributors let you determine which territories (usually countries)your ebooks will sell into. Of course, try to get world rights in any negotiations. This also offers the opportunity to create territory-based pricing strategies, such as low-priced editions for developing countries.


Royalties on ebooks is a contentious area. Many authors think ebook royalties should be higher than print, since they think that the publisher is saving on production and distribution costs. Publishers know things are often more complicated than that, and that they may be forced to pass any savings on to consumers, under pressure from large retailers like Amazon.

Moreover, under some contracts, electronic rights may fall under subsidiary rights clauses that give the author a far higher share of revenue than their royalty rate. A strong-willed author could even argue that they deserve a high subsidiary-rights percentage of revenue if you outsource most of your ebook creation and distribution to the point that you’re effectively licensing your ebook business to a third party. This is a good reason to treat ebook creation as a primarily in-house responsibility, even if you outsource some parts of the ebook-creation and distribution process.

It may be a good idea to offer authors the same royalty as the highest print-sales royalty in their contract, or offer all your authors the same, generous royalty (but not as high as a subsidiary-rights share would be). It is common to offer 20–25 per cent of net receipts on ebook sales. Some publishers offer as much as 50 per cent.