Subsidiary Rights for Indie Authors

Nas Hedron,—Updated 9 July 2013

What Are Subsidiary Rights?

When you write an original story, you automatically own the copyright for that story (in almost all cases—see Copyright 101 for Indie Authors for details).

But that copyright isn’t a single thing, it’s a whole bundle of different rights. You can use all of them yourself, license the whole bunch to someone else for a fee, or keep some for yourself while licensing the rest.

What’s inside the bundle? First of all there’s the original work, which means the story contained in a book in the original language.

But there are also other rights that cover different versions of the work—these are called the subsidiary rights or sub rights.

For instance, film rights deal with a movie version of the book, translation rights deal with editions of the book in different languages, and serial rights deal with excerpts rather than the complete story.

What Are the Main Subsidiary Rights?

There are many possible subsidiary rights, but the list below covers the main ones. Each description includes a few details about how these rights have been used in traditional publishing, to help you think about how they can be used in the new landscape of indie publishing.

In print publishing, large print editions and Braille editions are two more subsidiary rights, while in e-publishing the equivalent functionality is usually offered by the e-reading system. Special book club editions are typically another subsidiary right.

How Can I Manage My Subsidiary Rights?

In traditional publishing an author’s subsidiary rights were largely managed by their agent or their publisher. One or the other of these would seek out foreign publishers, audiobook producers, filmmakers, and so on, soliciting bids on the various rights. The author always had someone with expertise to help set up a deal and decide on the best offer.

In indie publishing the author generally doesn’t have an agent and, by definition, doesn’t have a publisher, so they are mostly on their own. Still, subsidiary rights shouldn’t be ignored: in traditional publishing these rights have sometimes earned more income than the original work.

There are three basic approaches to managing your subsidiary rights: exploiting your own subsidiary rights, selling your rights yourself, or using an agent to sell your rights.

Exploiting Your Own Subsidiary Rights

In recent years it’s become increasingly possible for authors to exploit their subsidiary rights on their own, creating and selling works based on an original book.

For instance, it’s entirely possible for an author to record and sell an audiobook version of their own work. Companies like ACX, Spoken Word Inc., and Open Book Audio allow authors to record their own audiobook or have it recorded by a professional narrator. It can then be distributed through high-traffic venues like,, and iTunes. ACX has been used by authors with traditional publishing deals, like Neil Gaiman, but also by indie authors like Bob Mayer.

If an indie author controls the rights to their cover art (or related art, like a logo or other design), they can exploit their merchandising rights by adapting that art for use on t-shirts, posters, mugs, and other merchandise. This can be done easily, usually with no set up costs, through companies like CafePress, Zazzle, and DeviantART. The author designs the online products by applying their art to a template of a mug, mousepad, or other item, while the service provider takes the orders, manufactures the products, and ships them.

These are just two examples of how indie authors can maintain control of subsidiary rights, using them to earn income. Like everything else done the indie way it takes time and effort, but with a growing number of online platforms it’s now easier than it’s ever been.

Selling Your Subsidiary Rights Yourself

There are likely to be at least some subsidiary rights that you just aren’t in a position to exploit on your own. You’re not likely to translate your own work into a foreign language or make a movie based on your book. But that doesn’t mean those rights have to sit idle.

Scott Nicholson, who is the author of numerous thrillers as well as The Indie Journey, Secrets to Writing Success, has made deals with translators working in several different languages, paying them nothing up front but offering a 20% share of the proceeds from sales of the translated book (see the Translations page of his web site).

On the other hand, if you’re not comfortable taking Nicholson’s hands-on entrepreneurial approach—and many people aren’t—you might want to take a look at one of several sites that allow rights sellers and rights buyers to get in touch and put together sales.

For instance, you can join PubMatch for free, create a profile, upload samples of your work for publishers and agents to read, list the rights that you have available to sell, search the membership database for prospective buyers for your subsidiary rights, and communicate with prospective buyers.

IPR License is a UK-based company that offers a similar service for a fee (£99 for the first year, less for subsequent years).

Using an Agent to Sell Your Subsidiary Rights

Some authors simply don’t feel comfortable working with subsidiary rights, even through an intermediary like PubMatch or IPR License. After all, these sites are great for putting you in touch with someone who might want to license your rights, but they do nothing to help you decide if a particular offer is good or bad.

If you fall into this category, and if you have a good track record in terms of sales, you might want to consider querying literary agents.

Hugh Howey, who had an indie hit with Wool, uses an agent for his subsidiary rights, including a UK print edition and the recent sale of the film rights to 20th Century Fox, with Ridley Scott (who directed Alien and Blade Runner) expressing interest in the film.

What Else Can I Do With My Subsidiary Rights?

In some cases a particular subsidiary right for a given book won’t be likely to produce much income, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be put to another use.

The most obvious alternative to exploiting a right directly or licensing it to someone else is to apply it to a promotional purpose. Maybe merchandise that’s been branded with your book’s cover wouldn’t produce a lot of sales, but mugs and mousepads could be good as giveaways in a promotional campaign.

Scott Sigler is a horror author who has made excellent promotional use of his subsidiary rights (even while often working with traditional publishers). Sigler creates his own audiobooks as multi-episode podcasts and has been very successful releasing them for free through iTunes as a way of promoting sales of his books to readers. Here are some you can try: Infected, Ancestor, Contagious.

The Future of Subsidiary Rights for Indie Authors

Like many things in the indie book world this is an area that’s still in the early stages of its evolution. We'll be adding information as new issue and opportunities arise. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to contact us if you have a question.

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