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Why Subsidiary Rights Matter

In the matter of subsidiary rights, here’s a story everyone should know about.

As I recall it, I heard it first from Harry Bruce. I had sold the same story four times in different forms and media, and Harry said, “Oh, great! A four-way play — congratulations.” And then he told me about Pierre Berton, who he reckoned was the champion.

Pierre Berton began writing about the Klondike early in his career. He wrote newspaper columns about it, then radio talks, then magazine pieces, then TV stuff, a children’s book, finally a non-fiction book.  He sold it to mainstream publications and offbeat ones like travel magazines or outdoors magazines. I don’t recall the details. In those days of course there were no such things as educational CDs, web sites, video games and so on, as there are now. If there had been he probably would have sold it in all those forms too.

But in the end, he had sold the same story in eleven different forms — and he was peeved because he couldn’t think of any way he had not sold it, and he wanted to make it an even dozen.

He pondered the challenge for a year or two, and then it hit him, said Harry. “He sold a piece to Writer’s Digest on how he’d made an eleven-way play.”

I met Berton at a Writers Union meeting ten or fifteen years later, and I asked him about the story, which I think Harry himself had at second hand. Was that actually the way it happened?

“Close enough,” Pierre grinned. “You’re authorized to keep on telling it that way.”

Closer to home: my “living beach” project began with a radio spot I wrote for the federal department of Energy Mines and Resources. I turned it into a radio talk, and then a magazine piece for Canadian Geographic. Using that CanGeo piece as a proposal, I sold it to the CBC as an Ideas series, and they gave me some travel money. With the travel money, I took a cameraman along on a trip down the east coast doing interviews, and we spun the Ideas piece into a TV show for Vision TV and then released it as a home video. And then I wrote the book, which prompted the CBC to make another TV version  I just missed doing a children’s book as well, and also an instructional CD.  So that’s an eight-way play which could have been ten.

That’s how you make a living as a freelancer. You invest in the research — and then you sell it over and over again. That’s what subsidiary rights are all about. And that’s what today’s publishers want to take away from you. Yes, the publishers say that their right is non-exclusive, but make no mistake about it — if somebody else co-owns the rights, nobody else will buy it.

These rights are what you have instead of a pension and a medical plan. You wouldn’t let corporations seize your RRSP, would you? Then don’t let them seize these assets, either.