Rights Roles in Publishing

A guide to the common skills and tasks of rights professionals

Rights professionals can work at various levels, and the number of tiers will depend on the size of the company. A large publisher may have roles from assistant to director, with several other positions along the way, while smaller publishers may have fewer levels of seniority, or just one person dedicated to rights. At very small or new companies, rights may be included in another role, like editorial, marketing, sales or finance.

Job titles will also vary and overlap: a rights executive might be called a rights coordinator in another company, for example. Rights Executives may have responsibilities that would earn them the title of Director in other companies. There is no standard structure, and each publisher will determine roles and responsibilities that best suit its strategy for managing rights.

With that flexibility in mind, here’s a guide to the common skills and tasks of rights people at five distinct levels.

Rights Assistant or Administrator

This is the entry point for many people who are interested in rights, and it is a great opportunity to learn how rights function. The role can be very varied, and will give you the chance to get involved in all kinds of projects. In particular it will improve your admin and time management skills—both crucial throughout the rights profession.

Rights Assistants will often be expected to keep databases and spreadsheets up to date and prepare sales materials for customers. They will deal with enquiries and may arrange appointments and travel for colleagues visiting book fairs and overseas publishers. There might be some marketing work involved, and the chance to maintain social media accounts.

Aspiring rights professionals usually get some years of experience as Assistants before progressing to Executive or Coordinator level. But people develop in different ways, and roles may evolve differently from company to company, so patience and flexibility are needed.

These skills are all useful for a Rights Assistant:

  • Exceptional communication skills: written and verbal, and internal and external
  • Enthusiasm and curiosity
  • Excellent organisation and attention to detail
  • A customer focused approach
  • Flexibility, adaptability and a can-do attitude
  • Familiarity with word processing, spreadsheet and database packages
  • Experience of general admin skills in an office environment
  • An appreciation of the commercial structures of publishing and the role of the rights team within them

Rights Executive or Coordinator

Rights Executives typically have more direct responsibility for sales and targets to meet. They will be directly involved in negotiating licensing deals and drafting agreements. They may be allocated responsibility for particular territories, imprints, fields of publishing or customers, and will carry out marketing activities in these areas. A lot of liaison is needed, with internal colleagues as well as current and new customers, and people skills are important.

Rights Executives may also get the chance to attend book fairs or travel to territories, which is a great way to get to know markets and improve pitching and presentation skills.

These skills and experience are commonly expected of Rights Executives:

  • Good sales and commercial awareness
  • Target orientated
  • Good negotiating skills
  • Understanding of licensing methods and terms and an up to date knowledge of the market and developments
  • Fluency in one or more foreign languages—often advantageous, but not necessarily required
  • Ability to work under pressure

Senior Rights Executive or Coordinator

This role is sometimes used in larger publishers as a stepping stone to managerial levels. It may demand a more strategic approach than junior executives, and could require sole responsibility for initiating or delivering projects and meeting targets.

Senior Rights Executives help to establish licensing policies, pricing models and business development plans, and they will be expected to report on revenue generated and progress against targets. Some management of junior executives or assistants is possible.

Above and beyond the junior role, these skills could be expected of a Senior Rights Executive: 

  • Business development and planning
  • Detailed knowledge of relevant publishing markets and trends
  • Knowledge of copyright and other relevant Intellectual Property law
  • Ability to work under pressure and to targets
  • Willingness to take initiative and ownership of projects
  • Presentational and public speaking skills

Rights Manager

Rights Managers will have substantial responsibility for aspects of rights, and in smaller companies may be in complete control of strategies and projects. Commercial acumen is vital at this level, as there will be responsibility for reaching targets and budgets. There will be management duties as well, including recruitment and retention, setting objectives and providing training, support and guidance to teams.

Rights Managers will attend book fairs, other relevant events and customer visits, so excellent people skills are essential—as is the confidence to talk to people working at senior levels. They will initiate and lead projects for others, will often champion rights internally, and may be asked to advise on potential acquisitions and their rights potential.

These expectations are often in addition to responsibility for growing sales with their own personal customers or territories, so good time management is essential. Presentation skills come into their own here, as rights managers will often be the point of contact for potential new customers.

In addition to what is required for junior roles, good Rights Managers have the following skills:

  • Very strong sales, commercial and target focus
  • Ability to formulate strategies and set targets and budgets
  • In-depth knowledge of rights trends and developments across all target markets
  • Persuasive presentation skills and talent for negotiations at face to face meetings
  • Extensive network of customer contacts and deep understanding of their needs
  • Coordination of work with other internal departments and colleagues
  • People management skills, including training and mentoring

Head of Rights or Rights Director

Heads of Rights have overall responsibility for licensing teams and their performance, and will usually have many years of experience in rights. They will be in charge of budgets and will be expected to report regularly on performance to senior management. It is expected that they will develop and execute strategic plans, and set policies and procedures for the rights function.

Heads of Rights are usually the most visible representatives of a publishing’s licensing operations, representing the business at book fairs and other events, especially internationally. They also have an important role internally, and will find ways to work effectively with colleagues in sales, marketing, editorial and other areas. As well as their management roles, Heads of Rights often remain active in sales and negotiations too, perhaps retaining responsibility for territories of customers where their input is particularly valuable.

Rights Directors have much the same responsibilities as Heads of Rights, with the additional duty of representing the function on the publisher’s board of directors. This brings fiduciary responsibilities, and makes the person an authorised signatory. Rights Directors may head up company-wide initiatives beyond the rights team, and will be a key part of the leadership of the business. They have the opportunity to promote the importance of rights at from the top of the company down, and to ensure that it is integral to growth.

Heads of Rights and Rights Directors commonly possess these skills:

  • Excellent leadership and people management
  • Strong commercial and budgeting acumen
  • Very good communication, inter-personal and presentational skills
  • Strategic and analytical thinking
  • A thorough understanding of the overall international rights and licensing market as it applies to the company
  • Problem-solving
  • Working alongside other functions in the business to meet broader company objectives

Other rights roles

Some publishers, especially larger ones, will have more rights-related roles. These may include contract specialists, whose duties include drafting, checking and managing licensing agreements; or legal professionals to advise on contract terms, copyright and other issues. Subsidiary rights roles may exist, and some professionals specialise in certain areas like merchandising or media rights. Some publishers have people dedicated to rights acquisition, crossing over with editorial responsibilities.

Rights consultants are also available to support publishers’ activities, and these can be especially useful for smaller companies with limited in-house expertise or resources. They can advise on anything from specific licensing agreements to complete rights strategies. Rights agents can help publishers sell rights in particular territories, in return for commission. Literary agents work for authors rather than publishers, selling rights to individual publishers direct.

Some roles are also dependent on the sector you're working in. For example, rights roles in magazines and newspapers would usually come under Syndication teams. These roles (Reuse/Syndication Rights Assistant/Manager/Director) can cover text and images and may contain multiple rights layers (including multiple authors and images that require PR approval.) Image reuse is more likely than text reuse requests and turnaround times for processing requests are usually much faster. Additionally, larger companies may have an Archivist (Assistant/Manager/Director) who would primarily handle image reuse requests. Archivists require specialist knowledge relating to archives, storage, and handling and focus on older content. 

Recruiting for Rights Roles

Job titles like those outlined above are also important to consider when recruiting.

What you call a job will heavily influence who finds out about it. For example, a ‘Rights Administrator’ post might attract people who have worked in administration in other industries, who can bring useful experience to the job—but a ‘Publishing Rights Executive’ will probably limit your potential candidate pool to people with publishing experience. A post of ‘Rights Executive’ might sound more appealing than ‘Rights Coordinator’—but it is important to manage people’s expectations of what a job entails, and how much responsibility or freedom candidates will have.

While some publishers still require a degree for rights roles, many more do not. This requirement narrows the field of candidates and may exclude people who have excellent real-world skills without formal academic qualifications. It can also act as a barrier at a time when publishing is seeking to become a more accessible and diverse industry to work in.

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