When a publisher obtains “exclusive” rights to publish, print, produce, distribute and/or sell a creative work, it means that no one else (including the author) has the right to use whichever rights the publisher has obtained on an exclusive basis.
“Exclusive” and “Exclusivity” come from the word “exclude” – a verb meaning to deny, prevent or keep out.
Publishers usually want (and require) exclusive rights to an author’s work. This makes good business sense. Publishers invest time and resources preparing a work for sale.
Actual costs vary, but a work that appears in traditional printed form – and often e-books too – must pass through editors, cover art and interior design, and formatting. To the extent there is marketing, whether through advertising or other forms of promotion, those efforts add additional cost. The publisher’s chance of recovering those costs and resources, and also making a profit on the work, depends in large part upon being the work’s sole producer. If consumers can buy the same book for less – or get it for free on a website – most people will go with the cheaper option, ruining the publisher’s chances of recouping the costs of publication.
And yet, the author need not necessarily surrender exclusive rights to all forms and formats, all language and all places throughout the world. Authors should review proposed contracts carefully, with professional assistance, and evaluate the terms of the specific deal the publisher is offering. Does the publisher have the resources to publish the work on a worldwide basis? If not, worldwide exclusivity makes less sense than something more tailored to the publisher’s actual capacity for fulfillment. The same is true of language rights, forms and formats. For example, if your publisher has no capacity for translation, you might want to grant only English language rights.
The need to evaluate exclusivity with care, and with an eye to the publisher’s capacity and intent, weighs heavily in favor of outside assistance with contract negotiation. Independent or self-represented authors should have a trusted publishing attorney in their corner. For traditionally represented authors, the agent often undertakes this role.
Perhaps the biggest take-away lesson for authors about exclusivity is be very, very careful to understand your contract. Know what rights you are giving away. Know which ones are exclusive and which are not. There’s nothing wrong with giving away worldwide exclusive rights – many successful authors have done and continue to do so. The mistake is signing off on exclusivity by mistake or without realizing the extent of the rights being granted. In that case, your “e” will stand for “error” – and a serious one at that.