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December 15, 2014
By Daniel Lefferts
Without the guidance of literary agents, indie authors have to take extra-special care to protect their rights—including copyright—when negotiating with a self-publishing service.

As self-published works grow in popularity, indie authors are increasingly in a position to market their book to foreign publishers or to agents and producers working in film, TV, and theater. But before authors can do that, they need know their rights.

Copyrighting Your Work

Without the guidance of literary agents, indie authors have to take extra-special care to protect their rights—including copyright—when negotiating with a self-publishing service.

Seth Dellon, director of new product development at PubMatch, a rights management resource for publishers, agents, and authors, says that, while indie authors technically own the copyright to any original work they produces automatically, it’s worth it for them to register their copyright. “You want to make sure that you register everything that you do,” he says, adding that the act of publishing itself constitutes “proof that you [own] it.”

Most reputable self-publishing companies provide upfront information about their copyright policies. AuthorHouse, for instance, “[ensures] that you retain all rights to the content of your book throughout the self-publishing process.” The service will also help authors register books with the U.S. Copyright Office. “Even though you are protected from the moment you start writing,” the site says, “you’ll have to register your work with the Copyright Office to be officially recognized as the copyright holder in a court of law.” Dog Ear, a self-publishing service, adds that “[b]efore an infringement suit may be filed in court, registration [with the Copyright Office] is necessary for works of U.S. origin.”

Whether or not they’ve registered with the Copyright Office, authors should always include a copyright page in their books, stipulating that the work belongs to the author and the year it was first produced.

Foreign Rights

"Marketing your book to readers is really important, but what’s equally important is marketing your book to the industry."
Beyond copyright, there are a number of rights issues to pay attention to, such as foreign rights. Tom Chalmers, the founder and director of the rights management service IPR License, advises readers to read their contracts carefully to understand where their self-publishing service stands on world rights. “Many authors far too easily just check ‘world rights’—all languages—and pass them over,” Chalmers says.

Authors who may be interested in selling their book in foreign territories or in other languages should work with a self-publishing service that helps them preserve their foreign rights, or at least one that’s upfront about its foreign rights policies. “There are a lot of self-publishers around,” Chalmers say. “If [one] isn’t being flexible, [authors] need to look around and make sure they’re not giving up their rights too easily.”

If foreign publishers don’t come knocking, indie authors can reach out to them. For authors who have self-published books in the U.S. and want to sell them in the U.K., Chalmers recommends making "a list of U.K. publishers that you think are relevant, find out the contacts at those departments…and submit your book to them.”

Dellon, of PubMatch, adds that opportunities to sell rights vary by market, and that authors should consider researching foreign rights early in the self-publishing process. “There are some markets, like other English-Language markets outside of the U.S. [where] you might have demands to publish even before you publish in the U.S.”

“Marketing your book to readers is really important, but what’s equally important is marketing your book to the industry,” Dellon adds. “Whether that’s rights buyers and publishers around the world, or even librarians and booksellers, there are other facets besides readers that it’s really important to reach.”

Film, Television, and Stage Rights

Authors should have just as clear an understanding of their film, television, and stage rights as they do of their foreign rights when working with a self-publishing service. Regardless of the platform or company indie authors work with to publish their work, it is vital they make sure they retain all rights pertaining to adaptations.

Even with film or TV rights intact, getting indie books in front of producers can be extremely difficult. But a number of recent success stories (most notably, director Ridley Scott’s purchase of the rights to Hugh Howey’s indie book Wool) are encouraging, and Chalmers says “adaptations are a huge business.”

There are number of services that help authors connect with figures in the film, TV, and theater industries. Dialogue Berlin, an international communications agency, has a Page to Screen department that connects authors with film producers. Voyage Media is another company that, according to The Alliance of Independent Authors, “has sold a number of projects to Hollywood.”

Audio Rights

When authors sign on with a self-publishing service, they should also understand which formats they’re giving away the rights to. While it’s convenient for most indie authors to publish a physical book and an e-book through the same publisher, they may want to exploit their audio rights elsewhere.

Assuming authors retain the audio rights to their books, there are a number of resources that allow writers to publish audiobooks. The most prominent is Amazon’s Audiobook Creation Exchange (or ACX), which allows authors to source producers and create and publish audiobooks.

Do the Research

The process of learning about and securing rights can be bewildering, especially for indie authors who don’t have an expert understanding of the publishing industry and who don’t speak legalese. Read contracts carefully, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. The Alliance of Independent Authors and the Association of Independent Authors both offer guidance to indie authors navigating the tricky world of rights.

Nonfiction authors should also attend to any rights issues pertaining to materials used in their work. Dellon of PubMatch says nonfiction authors “want to make sure that they have the rights and permissions to publish all the information that’s in there,” such as a photographs, images, or any reprinted articles or documents. 

Note: Publishers Weekly has a business interest in PubMatch and a business relationship with IPR License.