producing documentary books

Producing Documentary Books: Licensing Supplemental Content

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Astronaut Farmer Barn
Still standing is the barn built for the 2006 movie, The Astronaut Farmer, starring Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Dern. The set is located on a private movie ranch just south of Santa Fe, New Mexico, a property featured in many films and TV shows including Lonesome Dove, Cowboys and Aliens, Manhattan and A Million Ways to Die in the West. (Jain Lemos, Santa Fe, NM; 2014.)

Publishers deal with licensing supplemental content for their publications on a regular basis so having solid systems in place for doing so is the next topic in my blog series, The Ultimate Guide to Producing Documentary Books. Some projects have dozens of separate agreements for content use and these contracts need to address copyright, trademarks, publicity, privacy and other interests along with standardized usage language.

Here is the only requirement that can’t be changed: Permission to use content for any purpose whatsoever must be obtained in advance and in writing.

Basically, you’ll be buying editorial rights with the extended right to use the content for marketing and promotional applications, but only in connection with one specific book title or project. Start by asking for world rights, all languages, but if that is too expensive you can narrow down the distribution. As for print runs, know your target plus a reasonable cushion and license to that number (i.e., up to 50,000 copies). Include electronic rights either in the total print run or as a separate number. With rare exception, your licenses will be non-exclusive and the term of use will run out when you hit the print run ceiling.

Whenever possible, write all the usage parameters equally across all sources so licenses are easier to track and update in the future. If you aren’t experienced in negotiating content licenses, please hire a consultant. If you are working with a publishing house, their licensing department will likely want to handle the contracts. Keep in mind some of their boilerplates are tear-jerkers.

Many documentaries provide historical context so sprinkling in old images brings welcomed variety. Think about this: photos taken 40 years ago can now be considered old enough for referencing. Salgado had just started shooting in the mid-70s! In the reverse, if your title primarily uses historical images from public or private collections, you’ll want to add in new photography that relates to the narrative for then-and-now-type studies. With countless image banks at your fingertips the possibilities are endless.

But before going crazy, make sure you have a solid direction for supplemental content. Along with photos, you’ll be considering how illustrations, maps, icons, diagrams and other pieces of art are going to work. The added content needs to stand alone as a body of work. In most cases this means every set of content has its own continuity of style as you move through the book’s pages. Make your extra visuals complementary to the main photographs while allowing them to achieve their own unique story.

Documentary books merit depth and are distinguishable from a one-artist portfolio. Adding additional content keeps your readers engaged and gives a textured mixture to the layout. Bringing in the right blend of materials is a challenge so allocate plenty of time for research and brainstorm with your team to think about different ways to pump-up the intricacy of your project.

I’ll be covering Designing the Pages next in Part 21. Until then, be sure to register your barn at the Famous Barns website.

1 Comment

  1. Nice article. As a photographer this area of production often exercises my mind (and patience). It needs a simple set of guidelines that countries (with widely differing copyright laws) can adopt so everyone works from a standard. Most organisations are happy to contact the authors of work they want to use, but others either think they don’t need to (watch what happens when their IP content gets used without permission -or fees) or wilfully ignore what they know to be the honourable path. The worst case I ever had was a design agency (of all the businesses) who used several images without permission, lifted from my website for a case study for one of their clients… err, hello?!
    Speaking to the owner of the material is a good place to start and can often yield bargains where they are valid. I will often discount or offer free usage for museums, educational institutions and other not for profits (if I am sympathetic to their cause of course).
    I think the guilds and trade associations could provide invaluable free help for those unsure on what to do, too. A simple page on a website, detail in simple terms what needs to be done before production would be a good resource for the unsure, as much error has been made due to ignorance of the laws and protocols in various creative environments.
    Good of you to explore the topic here.

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