Working in rights: Ten frequently asked questions


The IPG’s rights consultant Lynette Owen answers some common queries about the roles and skills of rights professionals and shares advice for starting and building a career in the field. 

1. What is selling rights all about?

The task of rights sellers is to promote and license to third parties intellectual property rights in the publications they represent for suitable financial terms, and to tie up each deal with an appropriate licence contract. Licences might be in book form (for example, to a US publisher, translation licences or low-price licences to developing countries) or in non-book form (for example, audiobook rights, licensing content to websites or licensing as the basis for a stage, film or TV adaptation).  The possibilities for rights sales will depend on what rights the author has granted and the type of book in question.

2. What skills are most useful for a rights seller?

It’s primarily a sales job, so you need to be able to assess rights potential, have good communication skills, be persuasive and adapt your sales techniques to both the project and the potential licensee. You need a detailed knowledge of the list you are handling (both frontlist and backlist) and up-to-date knowledge of target markets and potential licensees. You need to be comfortable with figures as you may need to calculate licence terms or coedition costings on the spot. It’s helpful to have some knowledge of production, especially if you are handling coedition deals that involve printing copies for your licensees. You need to be well organised, have a head for detail, a good memory and be able to multitask to handle a range of deals at different stages of negotiation. Lots of energy is useful, as work can be very pressurised!

3. Is it helpful to have a legal qualification?

It’s not necessary, but all rights deals have to be covered by an appropriate licence contract, so a facility for drafting and understanding contracts can be a real asset.

4. Do rights staff have to be fluent in foreign languages?

Again, it’s not essential, as so much correspondence and negotiation will take place in English. However, fluency in one or more foreign language can be a real asset when dealing with customers, and may be a requirement of some jobs if staff have responsibility for particular geographical territories.

5. What about technical skills?

As for most roles, facility with Word, Powerpoint and Excel will be essential, especially if dealing with spreadsheets for coedition costings and budgets. Many rights sellers use dedicated rights management systems like Bradbury Phillips, Biblio3 and RightsZone to track their rights submissions and sales. With travel restricted during the pandemic, rights staff have had to find creative ways of working, setting up video calls via Zoom or Teams, either during the dates of virtual or hybrid book fairs or spreading the schedule more widely and taking into account different time zones. Video calls are likely to continue, so rights staff need to be comfortable pitching on camera! 

6. What’s the best way to find a job in rights?

Posts are advertised on the IPG jobs board and the Bookseller. Some posts may require previous experience in the rights field. Publishing degree students may have an opportunity for work experience in a rights department. If approaching publishers direct, consider carefully what types of book you would like to handle, study the websites of appropriate publishers and send a tailored CV expressing your interest in the rights field to a named rights director or to the HR department of your chosen publisher. Even if there are no current vacancies, most will keep CVs on file.

7. If I have no previous rights experience, what opportunities might be open to me?

It depends on whether you have other experience which might be relevant, like in direct sales. Complete beginners might start off in a post handling permissions—dealing with applications to quote limited amounts of copyright material in other publications—and then progress to handling more active licensing tasks. Rights departments and literary agencies often favour promoting staff from within.

8. What about training?

In a large rights department, much experience and training is gained on the job. However, advice and courses are available. PLS’ Rights and Licensing Hub offers three free online Rights Management Essentials courses, and the IPG Skills Hub has useful resources. The Rights2 consultancy offer occasional short courses, and the introductory Selling Rights course, run by Diane Spivey, Juliet Pickering and Lynette Owen, is run twice yearly—in normal times in person at Senate House, University of London, but currently online over four afternoons; the next course is on 18, 19, 22 and 23 November.

9. Any helpful books?

Publishing Law by Hugh Jones & Christopher Benson (Routledge), Selling Rights by Lynette Owen (Routledge) and Clark’s Publishing Agreements: A Book of Precedents ed Lynette Owen (Bloomsbury Professional, due January 2022) are all helpful. IPG members can get special discounts on many useful publishing-related titles here

10. What are the highlights of a career in rights?

Selling rights is a challenging area, conducted off at a tangent from the primary publishing process. Rights staff deal with a wide variety of contacts, both in-house and externally. Negotiating successful rights deals benefits the seller’s publishing house or agency and the author, generating additional revenue and enhancing the author’s reputation. In normal circumstances there may be opportunities for regular overseas travel, to international book fairs and on sales trips to visit customers in specific markets. 

Working in rights differs from working in editorial or direct sales. It requires a combination of communication and negotiating skills, the ability to tie up complex deals with appropriate licence contracts, the close monitoring of the performance of licensees and the identification of new potential partners. Above all it is a people-focussed activity, and is dependent on building up long-term relationships with licensees, often over many years. It’s hard work, but above all it should be fun! Let’s hope we can all return to meeting our rights partners in person soon, whilst retaining the benefits from keeping in contact online.

Lynette Owen is a vastly experienced consultant who has helped countless publishers. She is available to advise IPG members on a variety of rights-related issues, and you can contact her via the IPG.