Business of News

The Book-Rights Ticket

August 9, 2021
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Mohammad Ali didn’t think much about intellectual property rights until after he signed a contract with Wired, to report a ten-thousand-word piece on the rise of Hindu vigilante attacks against Muslims in India. The story was a hit—republished in international editions of the magazine and shared widely on social media. “I was happy to be published, frankly, as an international freelance journalist trying to break into New York,” he said. Best of all, the assignment earned him twelve thousand dollars, a great payout for a freelancer. Then he learned that Condé Nast Entertainment, which adapts film projects from stories in Wired and other titles under the company’s umbrella, had bigger plans for his piece: a documentary. Ali’s contract had granted Condé Nast total ownership, which meant that he could only wait to see what the company would do and hope that he might be included.

Ali’s experience is common in journalism; after signing a freelance or even a staff contract, writers can be rendered powerless over their work. As he learned later, the best (or only) alternative has often been to write a book. Sylvia A. Harvey, an independent journalist, published an article in The Nation about prison visitation rights, then expanded on the subject in The Shadow System (2020). “Writing my book was a way to immortalize my intellectual labor, being able to take all of it, put it in one place, and have my name on it,” she said. The book also provided her a means to more income—speaking engagements, leverage when negotiating freelance contracts. For Albert Samaha, now a BuzzFeed editor, landing a book deal to write Never Ran, Never Will, about a football team in Brownsville, Brooklyn, delivered close to sixty thousand dollars. “It was like a godsend,” he said. “It was just a big windfall in my pocket when I got that advance.”

“A lot of people usually think that a film option is like the golden ticket—and it’s not,” Alia Hanna Habib, a literary agent at the Gernert Company, said. “Optioning does not mean you’re guaranteed to sell. But if you finish the book, you’re guaranteed it.” Joshuah Bearman, a cofounder of Epic, a media business aimed at catching Hollywood’s eye, agreed: “The only way to really make money in journalism, especially if you’re not on staff, is to have an article that becomes a book,” he said. And if journalists want to see their work on the big screen—Bearman wrote a piece for Wired that became the 2012 movie Argo—books offer the best deal. When Samaha’s book was eventually adapted into a Netflix docuseries, his publishing rights secured him a share of the profits.

Lately, though, books are becoming a conquest for media companies. “It used to be that all you had to do was bargain for things like book leave; now you’re having to bargain for the right to begin with,” Susan Decarava, the president of the NewsGuild of New York, said. Take Dow Jones, the parent company of the Wall Street Journal. Yukari Iwatani Kane was covering Apple for the Journal when Steve Jobs died; agents approached her about writing a book on the fate of the company. She went on leave for the project, for which she received an advance in the $100,000 to $250,000 range (an amount Publishers Weekly categorizes as a “good deal”). Her book, Haunted Empire (2020), went on to be printed in nine countries, turning her “good deal” into a “major deal,” worth more than $500,000. But now Journal writers are required to obtain an editor’s permission just to speak with an agent, and if they wind up using any reporting gathered in the newsroom, they need to license the rights from Dow Jones. “Ten, fifteen years ago, media companies weren’t trying to say ‘This book idea is our IP,’” Habib said. 

It’s a conflict that stems from outlets’ need to find new sources of revenue in a collapsing ad market. “On the one hand you can argue that writers should get IP rights, because they’re the ones that put in the work,” Samaha said. “On the other hand, because the business model is so tricky, that money is one of the few ways a newsroom can be profitable.” To Decarava, there’s a risk that media companies will inhibit writers’ ability to develop their careers and have a chilling effect on staffers who want to explore interests outside of their job. Plus, books are just the beginning: “A lot of employers have taken the concept of what is done with books and tried to broaden it to encompass everything,” she said, including social media accounts. This year, the New York Times sent out a memo to employees announcing policy changes around external projects, such as newsletters, that have the potential to compete with Times journalism or to “distract” from reporters’ work; soon after, the Times announced it was starting a newsletter business. “There’s this push into ownership rights and extending the concept of work for hire beyond the workday,” Decarava said.

Rules of this kind will likely have the greatest effect on journalists with the least amount of leverage. Ali knows that if he’d been more established—and had an agent—at the time he signed on for the Wired piece, he probably could have gotten a better deal. Now he’s working on a book proposal. “Such is the nature of this industry,” he said. “You wait for the book to do well, and the next contract you get, you hope that it’s going to be more friendly to the person who did the labor.” If that doesn’t pan out, Bearman recommends another path for journalists: writing for television.

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Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.