Recently, I (Joanne C. Hillhouse of Antigua and Barbuda) reached out to three female Caribbean writers (Diana McCaulay of Jamaica, Lisa Allen-Agostini of Trinidad and Tobago, and Shakirah Bourne of Barbados) with whom I have in common the distinction of being a finalist for the Burt Award for Teen/Young Adult Caribbean Literature (Diana with Daylight Come in 2019 and Gone to Drift in 2015; Shakirah with My Fishy Stepmom in 2018; and Lisa with Home Home in 2017; my own Musical Youth was a 2014 finalist).
The three writers interviewed for this series have further distinguished themselves by selling rights to U.S. editions of their Burt books (McCaulay’s Gone to Drift released in the US market with Harper Collins in 2016; Lisa’s Home Home’s US edition landing in 2020 with Delacorte Press; and Shakirah’s book forthcoming in 2021 with Scholastic). I want to thank them for making the time because I believe their experiences, different though they are, are an education on publishing, especially if you’re a Caribbean Writer. The conversation is serialized due to length (so click here for the start of the series) – there are 5 questions.
Q. 2. Why do rights matter? – US rights, Caribbean rights, UK rights, world rights, foreign language rights etc. what does it mean and is it something you pursued (yes this requires some repetition given what you said in your initial response but expound if you can – as much as you can share what the process has been like and explain what is meant by selling regional rights and why it matters? If it does)
Lisa: Rights matter. The first edition of the book was published in the UK and the Caribbean and that left North American and other worldwide rights available for Polly to sell; if you’ve ever bought the same book with a different cover from a different publisher, that’s an example of why rights matter. You can sell the same book in different territories. A publisher usually builds strong marketing and distribution networks in her territory. Now there are two editions of my novel Home Home: a Caribbean/UK one and a North American/US one. Papillote is strong in the Caribbean and UK and Delacorte is strong in the US.
Diana: The sale of rights is a great opportunity to sell books in different places, where different publishers have stronger networks. As Lisa has described for Home Home, Gone to Drift now exists in two editions – Caribbean/UK published by Papillote and USA, published by Harper Collins. The sale of rights was handled entirely by Papillote, I knew Polly was trying and had hired an agent to do so, but I thought it was a long shot. I was thrilled when it happened. The Harper Collins editing was light – mostly to do with any mention of sex! I find it interesting how little writers or publishers talk about sales numbers, but the Harper Collins edition of Gone to Drift gave me the highest sales numbers I ever had for any book.
In any publishing contract, there is a list of rights and what you will be paid if any of them are sold, but it’s hard for the writer to get this to happen. It’s really up to the publisher to bring some energy to this aspect.
Lisa: I am sure Polly Patullo (publisher of Papillote Press) did tell me that she was going to sell some rights. I tend to be very giddy about publishing–“Oh, publication! Yay!”– and I don’t really interrogate the contracts at all. So when she told me that I probably said, “Yeah, okay, go ahead.” She has a rights agent, Margot Edwards, who sold the novel to US publisher Delacorte Press. I only got involved when the deal was done so I don’t know the guts of the process though I understand it’s harrowing. I met my Delacorte editor Monica Jean over email after I signed the contract. From there I had to do two edits. Fortunately there wasn’t too much back and forth with the edits and Monica too turned out to be a really patient and respectful editor, and a fine technical editor as well. The whole process took almost two years; my first email from Monica was sent June 22 2018 and the US edition came out May 26 2020.
Shakirah: Lisa summed it up best: rights matter because you can sell the same book in different territories i.e. several different income streams for the author. Once I had come to respective agreements with Burt, Blue Banyan and my agent, the book was free to submit to US publishers. It is already difficult to get any offer of publication from a reputable publisher, and I cannot overemphasize the benefits of having an agent to handle this process as there are multiple types of book deals. An author has to weigh an offer and choose what is best for them in the given situation. I am privileged to have someone to negotiate contract terms on my behalf and agents seek the best deal for clients since they work on commission (and are never paid out of pocket).
In my experience, it is in the best interest of a publisher to secure world rights when making an offer for a book, because they can then sell those rights to other publishers in other territories. However, all monies earned would be split between three people: the author, the publisher and any sub-agent that the publisher hires to procure the sale in a given territory.
Because I retained all rights except for the Caribbean, my agent was able to sell North American rights to Scholastic. All monies earned would be split between two persons: the author and the agent, and so would be more financially beneficial to the author. It is in the best interest of the author to retain as many rights as possible. I now have the opportunity to sell the UK and Commonwealth rights, and other foreign and translation rights to different publishers, each time only splitting advances and royalties with my agent/agents. I do want to note that sometimes an author is happy to give world rights to a publisher, especially if they have a good track record in selling foreign rights. If there’s only one offer on table then authors have less bargaining power, but a good agent may still be able to negotiate a higher advance or royalty percentage for the author in exchange for all of those rights.
It’s so important that authors understand that EVERYTHING is negotiable in a contract. We’re so excited to even get the offer in the first place that we’re already dreaming about the book in our hands and eager to sign whatever necessary to make it happen. An agent pulls your head out of the sky, and makes sure you’re getting the best deal possible. I’m still learning about rights and what is norm, but this is where an agent is so helpful. For e.g., I remember asking my agent about film rights and she made it clear that those were not up for negotiation and we would be retaining those rights. I was not involved in the negotiations at all (to my relief). I saw the initial offer from Scholastic, and a few months later I got a contract to sign, and I could clearly see where the terms were more favourable.
Q.3. and the author responses will follow in the next installment of the series.
All images are courtesy of the authors and interview was conducted and published by Joanne C. Hillhouse. You can excerpt and share with link-back/credit but do not republish without permission.