knk interviewed Lynette Owen as part of knk’s continuing series of interviews discussing the major issues facing the book publishing industry. Ms. Owen is UK-based but a world-renowned expert on international rights and royalties. She is the editor of the industry standard, Clark’s Publishing Agreements, and a distinguished author on the subject of rights.
We asked Ms. Owen what she views as the three most significant long-term challenges facing book publishers today in the areas of royalties, rights, and permissions.
On the subject of rights, an area of particular expertise for Ms. Owen, she told us that despite 2018 revenues in excess of £557 million generated by publishers and literary agents in the UK, rights sales are all too frequently regarded as a minor activity by many publishers. Business is affected significantly by local economic conditions (e.g. – the 2008 recession and the boom and subsequent bust in Brazil). China has been a major market but is affected by increasing censorship and government control.
Ms. Owen described permissions as a labor–intensive effort, often conducted by junior staff that generates only modest revenues. However, the trend towards increased litigation relating to extending, clearing and re-clearing permissions creates ample justification for many publishers to turn to outsourcing agencies like CCC and PLSClear.
And Royalties are still all too often regarded as a back-office function quite separate from rights selling at many publishing houses. Ms. Owen observed that the best–managed houses pay particular attention to ensuring that there is close cooperation between the two functional areas and for tight integration between rights sellers and royalty systems.
We discussed at some length how these challenges might vary by industry segment. In Trade, for example, potential rights revenues can even affect the initial decision to publish. In addition, temporary market challenges may have significant impacts. Academic publishers don’t have the same pressure in terms of impact on the publishing decision, and in El-Hi, licensing is a serious challenge as the content is most often tailored to local curricula. Textbook publishers are facing many significant challenges with declining revenues and alternative content from Open Educational Resources becoming a steadily growing factor in these markets, but rights income could play a more important role, potentially helping to offset some portion of these declines.
We asked Ms. Owen for her thoughts on the most significant unrealized opportunities for publishers. “If publishers had the resources, there are more opportunities in new trends and business models in rights (for example, the current “tidying up” trend), but in general, publishers don’t want to cut into their core businesses”. She sees continued opportunities in audio and its variations in expanding media (Netflix, Prime, Apple), although the publisher may not always control these rights if authors’ agents are involved.
And finally, we discussed the expanding role of technology in the management of rights, royalties and permissions. In addition to the obvious and revolutionary advances that email has provided over snail-mail for all segments of the industry, the most significant developments have come from rights databases, rights management systems, and rights trading platforms. “Gone are the days when we managed rights business on double entry index cards”. These systems provide access to a range of enormously useful reports (rights sales by territory for example), as well as providing marketing mail merge and chasing letters, that eliminate much of the drudgery that the old systems entailed”.
Lynette Owen began her distinguished publishing career with Cambridge University Press and later with Pittman, Marshall Cavendish and Pearson. Besides her consulting business, Ms. Owen is the current General Editor of Clark’s Publishing Agreements (978-1784519469), the bible for rights sellers and media lawyers, now in its 10th edition. All royalties from the book go to The Book Trade Charity. She is also the author of Selling Rights (978-1138489486) the guide to rights sales and co-editions, now in its 8th edition. Both titles are available on Amazon.
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