Publishing Lives 8: Jennie Dorny, Rights Department, Éditions du Seuil

Jennie Dorny, who works in the rights department at Éditions du Seuil, avers in her master-class on rights, ‘If you do not like solving problems, a career in rights isn’t right for you.’ There is incomprehension writ large on all our faces.

Firstly, the concept of rights in publishing is rather nebulous to many of us since the only legal or moral issue that has perturbed us as readers and that we have been warned about expressly by our teachers is plagiarism. Secondly, the only problems that we knew existed in the world of books, apart from those faced by the characters in the books, were in being visible and selling reasonably well.

So what is ‘rights’ anyway? Jennie explains, with the help of her sheaf of meticulously arranged notes, an inventory of every possible word that exists in the rights dictionary and experience gleaned from an almost 30-year-old career in rights, that it is the set of claims a publisher can lay on an author’s work, and the rules s/he must abide by when producing it. The document that lists all these rights and directions is called a memorandum of agreement or simply, a contract.

Jennie, who has worked in three publishing houses of different sizes and ownership tells us a little about her experience in each, explains that the rights department is a transversal department, because it must remain aware of the developments in all the other departments in a publishing house, whether the editorial department, the production and marketing department or the legal one. Then she enumerates the skills a rights person must possess, namely, memory, patience, trust, adaptability, a sense of priority, knowledge of several languages and the ability to communicate succinctly. S/he must also have a clear notion of the intellectual property laws in his/her country and abroad. She regales us with examples—in Japan, an author’s works pass into the public domain only 10 years after his death, if none of his works has been translated into Japanese before his death.

Jennie reads out to us the things she has to do on a normal day at work and the kind of mails and requests she receives, which range from the most banal to the most complicated. Even though we have a merry time laughing at the ridiculous ones, we realize that even the most ridiculous request must be handled with tact and compassion for, as Jennie emphasizes, publishing is a world where human relations matter more than anything else. At Seuil, editors acquire rights and the right department sells them to foreign publishers. Apart from the usual sale of books, selling foreign rights becomes a steady source of income. Selling rights of a particular book, she explains, entails giving a foreign publisher the right to translate into his own language, produce and sell that book, for a stipulated time period within a certain territory. The foreign publisher, in turn, has to pay the proprietor, the publisher in the original language, royalty on either the list price of every copy sold or on the net receipt. There is no upper limit on the number of copies the foreign publisher might sell within that period of time (usually five or seven or ten years), but the royalty payable might increase with each subsequent reprint, depending on the royalty scale. After the validity is over, the foreign publisher may or may not renew the contract. Other details such as the printrun, the validity of the contract whether from the time of signature or from the date of publication, maximum publication delay, etc. are also important. That apart, subsidiary rights such as the right to reproduce in an anthology, to publish kiosk editions, book club editions, prepublication rights etc. are of great value. Audiovisual rights, however, Jennie clarifies, rest with a different department in Seuil, and the rights for the images in an illustrated book are not given by the proprietor to the publisher, but must be cleared from the artist, or whoever might hold them. An author may also exercise his moral right to reject an unfaithful translation of his work, or the additions or modifications made to it by way of notes or preface without his and the proprietor’s consent. Though not mandatory, it is expected that the front and back covers of the translated book have the author’s approval.

But selling rights isn’t as easy and swift a process as selling a book, nor is the signing of the contract the only step in it. There are a number of steps leading up to the signature of the contract and they involve a number of people and organizations. The approach differs on the basis of the genre of the book but the procedure is nearly similar. Rights managers of a publishing house or agents representing that house send out books to publishers all over the world, based on their profiles and interests, as well as their country. It is more difficult to sell the rights of a topical non-fiction because between translation and publication, the subject might become oudated. Sometimes, a particular publisher might be given an option which means reading the book before anyone else in his country.

We learn that a publisher can make a blind offer to publish a book without having read it, though Jennie confirms it is a rare practice and not always encouraged even if the offer made is substantial. Offers are then carefully judged on the basis of the money offered by way of a flat fee (in case of closed contracts where the entire amount corresponding to the total amount of rights due for a limited printrun is paid between signature and publication) or advance and royalty (in the case of open contracts), printrun, the publishers’ track records both in terms of capital and quality. When there is more than one offer for a book, an auction is held at the end of which either a publisher who has a clear and wide margin ahead of the others might acquire the rights, or if all the offers are still very close, a call for best offer will be sent out, or very rarely and as determined by house policy, a publisher can be given a topping right to top the best offer made by another publisher. It is also possible that a publisher who makes a high pre-emptive offer for a short period of time to prevent competition might acquire the rights to publish the translation. But Jennie warns that the process must be as transparent and neutral as possible not only to maintain the company’s reputation but also to be just and fair to other publishers, since the publishing worldwide is indeed a fraternity of similar-minded people. As she explains each of these hitherto unheard alien terms to us, Jennie gives us examples of buying and selling rights and the legalities they entail all over the world and the assistance available in terms of grants and subsidies.

Next, she takes us through an exercise that is of primary importance to everyone in a publishing house—to read correctly and, if need be, to draft a contract. Since it is a legal document, Jennie teaches us, the contract needs to be as detailed, specific, unambiguous and exhaustive as possible. It must mention clearly the rights granted exclusive or non-exclusive, primary or secondary, the territory, the advance, royalty, validity, information about the translation i.e. date of publication, printrun, size, shape etc., termination of contract, the provision for a legal solution in case of an inadvertent breach of contract etc. Electronic rights may be granted through an addendum to the main contract.

Jennie’s lecture spanning two days covers every aspect of rights in publishing and every rule and it also teaches us that every problem in this sector has to be approached in a unique way and that one has to constantly improvise the rules and think outside the rulebook. It is no mean feat that Jennie is able to make a hitherto-avoided, dry and dreary subject like rights come alive with her sparkling sense of humour and seem interesting. We keep bursting into fits of laughter every now and then as she recalls hilarious anecdotes that exemplifies both the rules and their exceptions.

Gradually, we begin to realize that world literature wouldn’t be accessible to us had it not been for people who work in the rights departments of foreign publishing houses and share their literary gems with people in other countries and put into motion an elaborate system for disseminating knowledge. As Jennie explains everything methodically, her passion for her area of expertise becomes more and more obvious and inspiring, and it also becomes clear that, at the end of the day, the calculation is not so much of monetary loss and gain as of knowledge, human relations across borders and spreading the love of good books.

Sohini Dey


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