Seven tips for powering through permissions

States of Mind front cover e1454020508139

After spending the past few months sourcing over 90 works of fiction, non-fiction and art for inclusion in Wellcome Collection’s new anthology, States of Mind: Experiences at the Edge of Consciousness, I’ve learned a few tricks about acquiring copyright permissions. Here are my top seven tips:

1. Understand the legal context

Just because something is often reproduced it doesn’t mean it is in the public domain, as Transworld recently discovered. So, before you do anything, familiarise yourself with the principles of copyright law and when permission is required to reproduce previously published material.

The Society of Authors have an informative guide to Copyright and Permissions available on their website. For a more comprehensive introduction to all aspects of publishing law I’d recommend Hugh Jones and Christopher Benson’s excellent and accessible book. If in doubt, assume permission is needed – you may waste an email or two, but you’ll be on the right side of the law.

2. Start early

Major publishers like Random House, Penguin (despite the merger, their permissions are still handled by separate departments…) and Macmillan suggest you allow at least 6, 8 or 12 weeks for an initial response.

Of course, that response may not be an actual agreement. Sometimes the publisher may need to contact the author, or other rights holder, before drawing up an agreement. Sometimes they won’t actually hold or manage the rights and will refer you to someone else. Sometimes you may need to negotiate with them to obtain a mutually agreeable price. And sometimes, when you chase them up, you discover your initial request has been lost in the ether.

All this means that the earlier you can apply for permission, the better. Having said that, I managed to clear almost 40 permissions for States of Mind in a little over 3 months; it is possible, with a strong nerve and a persistent character, but I also had to drop some great content thanks to copyright holders who didn’t respond.

3. Take a two – or three – pronged approach  

Even if the copyright page of a book tells you to contact the publisher, the company may not actually hold or manage the subsidiary rights. Subsidiary rights for some big name authors and poets are handled by their literary agents; some authors retain control of their own subsidiary rights.

Rather than waiting months for the publisher to get back to you, try contacting the literary agent or author at the same time. You will often receive a quicker response this way – agents were generally the speediest of all the rights holders I contacted. In one case the author was my only recourse, when the publisher was unable to locate the contractual paperwork that identified who actually owned the copyright.

Be prepared to contact people by telephone (probably several times), rather than simply waiting for replies to emails or online forms.

4. Get personal 

Some big name publishers use automated systems to submit permissions requests and do not provide any contact names or other means of chasing up your request. If you have waited the allotted time, haven’t heard anything and are desperate to resolve the situation, use your publishing contacts to try and find a named individual in the permissions department.

I called on the Kingston University alumni network to track down names of permissions staff in two major publishers, who I then contacted directly with polite pleas to speed up my requests.

5. Negotiate

Permissions fees aren’t carved in stone. There are also plenty of permutations (length of extract, type of publication, type of rights, region, language and duration) that impact on the cost. If the quote you receive exceeds your budget, try negotiating. The agent or publisher may be happy to see the work gain additional exposure for a lower price, rather than you not using it all. However, there’s no guarantee they will sway to your demands, especially for big brand authors.

6. Prepare some back up options

Be prepared for the copyright holder to charge a fee beyond your budget, deny permission or simply not respond. For everything you seek permission for, have a back plan – what could you put in its place? An extract from another publication? A new piece of content?

Look beyond books. For States of Mind I sourced material from journal articles (which are easily managed through services like RightsLink), a professional report, an archive manuscript, a blog and the transcript of a TED talk. In general, acquiring permission for these was easier, quicker and cheaper than acquiring permission for book extracts. The result is also a truly eclectic collection.

7. Keep thorough records

It’s obvious you need to keep a record of all your agreements, so you can prove you received permission to reproduce the material if challenged. However, you also need to keep records of the conditions of the agreement. Many agents or publishers ask for a specifically worded acknowledgement and free copies of the published book. Others restrict the permission to specific regions, print runs or number of years in print. If you don’t take note of these conditions you could end up breaching the terms of your contract.

States of Mind: Experiences at the Edge of Consciousness is published this week by Wellcome Collection, priced at £9.99.

Anna FahertyAnna Faherty is a writer, publisher and teacher. She collaborates with global publishers and museums on digital, print, exhibition and training projects and has taught on publishing programmes at Kingston University, Oxford Brookes University and University College London. Anna blogs at and tweets as @mafunyane.



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