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It is often possible for publishers to serve some of the informational needs of their target audiences without contracting for original writing or translations. This essentially involves finding someone else who’s already created a useful information package in another format or medium (or even simply a prior edition) and then obtaining rights to offer it to your audience in some specified way — as a book, a portion of a book, an item in your catalog and/or a future adaptation in another medium.

The most obvious use for previously created material is in an anthology. It behooves the conscientious publisher to maintain a quick-reference bibliographic database of journal articles, speeches, conference papers, research reports, and other archived writings that might be combined selectively into anthologies as certain topics acquire new relevance.

Those databases should include brief summaries of chapters in other publishers’ books that bear on your subject area. Most publishers are fairly agreeable about licensing usage of single chapters from their books. But (as with most sources of previously used materials) you should bear in mind that the license will normally limit your use to that anthology and not give you the right to re-license translations, media adaptations, etc.

Beneficial Side Effects

A systematic program of identifying anthology components and negotiating with the authors, publishers or other rights owners for re-publication rights is a good way to make new contacts for your author pool. By adding the writers of all those prospective anthology components to your author database and seeing that they receive all of your general communications, you open the door for promising book proposals.

Also, maintaining databases for anthologies is a good way to stay up to date on what is being reported, theorized, and argued on the cutting edge of your chosen subject area.

The Sub-Rights Route

An even more common method of obtaining previously published material for easy repackaging is negotiating subsidiary reprint rights deals for works initially limited to distinct formats (such as hardcovers, trade paperbacks, etc.) or marketed only to restricted audiences (members, etc.) or simply undermarketed to such a degree that most of their plausible audience has never been tapped.

To buy subsidiary republication rights systematically you’ll need three things:

  1. a collection of the major bibliographies covering your subject category or categories for advance scouting
  2. the current catalogs of other publishers who’ve been publishing in these categories for some time
  3. an adaptable letter setting forth the terms you prefer.

While 6%-7% of list price was a traditional licensing royalty (to be shared by the original publisher with its author), we suspect that 10% of net receipts from the licensed publisher’s edition/version is becoming more common (and more reasonable) in the light of today’s diverse distribution possibilities. A republication license should be for a specific term (traditionally seven years but some licensors may agree to “life of copyright”). It should generally cover all of the ground plowed in a normal publisher-author contract.

Once you’ve developed your terms, shopping for republication licenses is a simple matter. Periodically survey your contact list of appropriate publishers and when you find something that interests you ask for a complimentary “reading copy,” find out about availability and then offer your standard terms.

If you become sufficiently acquainted with the literature in your fields, you may come across significant republishable material that requires no license for subsequent version(s). These are works in the public domain because their copyrights have expired or because they were created specifically for wide and unrestricted distribution via public agencies (such as Congressional committees). But make sure you’ve confirmed the absence of valid copyrights through the Registrar of Copyrights or private search agencies. Just search “copyright” on the Internet for extensive guidance in doing so.

The Adaptation Option

Purchasing media adaptation rights is another possibility. These rights allow you to convert somebody else’s book into a seminar/workshop, audio or video cassette, CD-ROM, etc. or, conversely, to transcribe somebody else’s presentation in one of those other media into a book under your imprint. Licensing terms for media adaptations vary widely — from the 7% – 10% range for print usage to 30% -35% for typical online access rights and up to 50% for e-book downloads. Figure out in advance what you think is right for you, put it in your basic “terms” letter and leave it up to the licensor to offer an alternative or not. But don’t accept any alternative without making a financial projection of the results. And remember that media adaptation rights will seldom be profitable unless you’ve already developed a scheduling and workflow template to handle each medium effectively.

The “Publisher of Record” Role

If your field of subject interest is well organized and served by one or more associations or religious denominations that are not already aggressively publishing their own books you may be able to expand both your list and your service to your constituency by undertaking some projects as a “publisher of record” for these groups. This could involve searching for material for support resources in their offices or publishing their “official” membership directories, histories, etc. But by far the most common “publisher of record” books are compilations of conference papers presented during major formal meetings.

The first critical rule of conference publishing is to make sure your arrangement with the sponsoring organization stipulates that it will require all conference speakers to sign an advance release form giving comprehensive publication rights to their presentations — in all media, all languages, all parts of the world — to that organization. Then make sure you have a clear written license from the organization, setting forth the terms (usually those you’d offer any author) under which you can use the conference papers.

It’s also a good idea to ask the sponsoring organization to specify how each speaker’s text will be transmitted to you. Be absolutely certain they’ve required finished written transcripts before the conference (so you won’t have to track down an entire stable of elusive writers later). And stipulate that these transcripts must be submitted both in hard copy and on disk, without formatting and in a program can access and import from..

Distribution Deals

In addition to making yourself available as a “publisher of record” for relevant organizations, you might scout for opportunities to function as a “distributor” for them and for other publishers who may occasionally have books of interest to a constituency that they can’t easily reach and you can.

The agreement in this case should clearly specify what discount terms you’ve negotiated for buying inventory. Even some of the largest trade publishers offer bonus “special marketing” discounts on titles distributed through the catalogs of smaller, more specialized publishers. Because it’s seldom profitable for the originator to sell at discounts above 50% and seldom profitable for the secondary publisher to distribute for less than 50%, most win/win deals are concluded at about that level.

You should negotiate reasonable return privileges (within a given time, assuming undamaged merchandise, and specifying who pays for shipping each way). Try to arrange for adequate advance notice before any distributed title is allowed (by the originator) to go out of stock or out of print since you’ll be offering delivery to your customers in catalogs printed months earlier.

And get written assurance that reasonable restocking quantities (perhaps 5 to 25 copies) will be available promptly, on the original discount (and other) terms. Then simply set up a reorder form that you can use to replenish stock quickly whenever you’re running low.

If you can distribute other people’s books through your catalog or dealer network or overseas affiliates or any other channel for which you’ve negotiated rights, why not other merchandise? One good way to test the appeal of non-print media packages is to offer software, cassettes and even journal subscriptions or seminar registrations from other sources to your customers and prospects. You should document deals for such distribution in writing, in terms similar to those for secondary book distribution — always making sure of your continuing source of supply.

Distribution needn’t be limited to information packages. It may be just as plausible to offer rare cooking ingredients, seeds and garden tools, computer peripherals or cruise ship packages if they’re closely related to the interest you share with your constituency. The same general guidelines for negotiating distribution terms should apply.

But before you get too intrigued with these possibilities, write on the blackboard 1000 times “Publishing is usually much more profitable than distributing.” Publishers who’ve made realistic comparisons of true costs and true revenue from sales of their own products and those “distributed” for other producers have generally found that distribution margins average 2% -3% while publishing margins average 8% – 10%.

Still, distributing other people’s merchandise is a good way to share promotion costs through economies of scale and to speed your accumulation of a confirmed customer base (for future exploitation.

Management consultant John Huenefeld, a confidential advisor to some 400 publishers, is the author of the completely rewritten sixth edition of The Huenefeld Guide to Book Publishing, published this month. This article is adapted from the book. For more information about the Guide, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to The Huenefeld Co., Box 665, Bedford, MA 01730. To order (shipping prepaid) for $42, call 781-275-1070 with a VISA or MasterCard in hand.

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