Understanding Foreign Rights

What do Harry Potter and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have in common other than movie deals? Well, not a lot, but their publishers and authors do both know how to take advantage of foreign book sales, a growing sector of the publishing industry where the right book and the right deal can provide a nice padding of revenue for authors and publishers.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series managed to get translated into around 70 languages, doing particularly well in the United States, where publishers obtained rights to the series and watched it top bestseller lists for months. Because of its international status, the final book in the series,Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, broke records when it sold 11 million copies in the first 24 hours after its release.

Though Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series (officially the Millennium series) caters to a decidedly more adult audience, the foreign rights to his book have also given the series a sales advantage. Published originally in Sweden by Norstedts Förlag, Larsson tried to negotiate a foreign rights deal with British authors but was unsuccessful until the London publisher Quercus bought the English-language rights for the book. Alfred A. Knopf bought the U.S. rights to the books after Larsson's death in 2004. In December 2011, 65 million copies of the series had been sold worldwide.

Many authors have found that selling foreign rights to their book is a nifty way to diversify and expand revenue, often with little upfront cost. If you think your title has potential for overseas distribution, here are some things to remember:

Your Book Must Travel Well. Content must be relevant to appeal to foreign publishers and agents. Books that hit the big time in foreign markets must have somewhat universal subject matter, and it helps if they are easily translated as well; the prospect of spending valuable time and money on a long and difficult translation can kill off agents’ and publishers’ interest in no time. Popular categories tend to be business, self-help, parenting, and personal empowerment. Fiction is likely to do well only if it has a stellar track record and broad appeal.

Also remember that changes in format may occur. A slim book may fatten considerably in certain languages. Your trim size may change. Pictures and illustrations you don’t have the right to sell may have to be removed. (And don’t leave any ugly messages on your Israeli publisher’s voicemail for printing your book backwards—it’s supposed to be like that.)

The Price Must Be Right. Hammering out the royalties and advance with a foreign publisher can be tricky, particularly when dealing with a myriad of economic climates and the varying prices of books within each country. Royalty rates are typically between 5–10%. Typically, a publisher will pay a fixed amount for the first print run and a percentage as the print run increases beyond the initial run. A typical royalty rate would look something like this:

1-10,000 copies 6%, 10,001-15,000 7%, 15,001+ 8%

Foreign rights grants generally last around 4 to 5 years. The advance is usually paid 60-90 days from when the fully executed agreement is received by the publisher and any additional royalties are paid out annually.

It is not uncommon for ebook rights to be handled separately from those for the printed book. Ebook offers never have an advance attached to them, and royalties are paid as a percentage, which ranges from 15%–25%, depending on the country. Just like the printed copies, they are paid annually.

Terms Must Be Defined. Always make sure you know exactly what you sold and for how long. Are audio rights and book club rights included in the deal? Are you selling the right to distribute your book in Spain, or anywhere they speak Spanish? Clearing up issues like these can help you sidestep future catastrophe.

Communication Must Be Sustained. Don’t just send your book to Taiwan and get frustrated that you never heard back. Without being pushy, try to keep up with your contacts in foreign countries and cultivate a healthy relationship. Great distances can create great frustration when the lines go dead for long periods of time. Many newbies to foreign distribution tell horror stories of backed-up royalties and unresponsive contacts. Remember that the publisher has to review the book, and English is probably not their first language. It will take them some time to not only read and understand the book, but to also determine its marketability within their country.

Longtime foreign rights negotiators emphasize that personal relationships are often vital in a successful deal. Your contacts should for the most part speak English, but cultural differences remain. Naturally, remember to be polite, friendly, and respectful, and studying up on the country in question doesn’t hurt either. Embarrassing geography gaffes or a bad attitude could easily prompt a publisher to pass you over for another of the many titles ripe for successful foreign distribution.

At the end of the day, it’s not likely that the foreign rights to your book will get you rich. It may seem a daunting task for a modest amount of money, but anything you make is basically found money. (It’s also cool to show off your newly printed Romanian version to your friends.)

Foreign readers are hungry for quality books. If yours fits the bill, why not send it packing and see what happens?