Foreign Rights. Now more than ever, we’re seeing translation rights buzz and increasing a book’s global range. And why not? Authors work incredibly hard to create the best book they can, and language should not be a barrier to finding readers to share stories with.
Because of this, it is our pleasure to welcome Marleen Seegers, Foreign Rights Agent for 2Seas Literary (& our FR agent). Marleen has sold our books in many different countries and I asked her if she could peel back the curtain on what a FR agent does, and the process of finding the right match. This is really valuable info, so please read on…
Give Your Book a Second Life: Get It into Foreign Markets
Tens of thousands of books are translated into another language each year. The most translated author is the Queen of Crime Agatha Christie, followed by Jules Verne and William Shakespeare who occupy respectively the second and third positions.
Looking at the global market, roughly 60% of all translations around the world are books originally written in English. It comes as no surprise, then, that only 3% of the books that are published in the US are translations—in the UK, this is even a mere 2.5%! By comparison, in Poland a smashing 46% of books published are works in translation, in Germany over 12%, in Spain around 24%, and in France about 15%.
This leads us to conclude that, particularly as an English-language author, it can be lucrative to try selling your book into foreign markets. Besides the additional income, isn’t it wonderful to show your friends and family a copy of your book in French or Korean?
Selling foreign rights is just one of the many possibilities to give your book a second life and create an extra revenue stream. Movie/theater/comic strip adaptations, audio books, and merchandising are other examples of the so-called “subsidiary” rights umbrella.
“Primary” book publishing rights include hardcover, trade paperback, mass market, and digital editions of your book in its original language.
As a foreign rights agent, I work with authors, publishers, and literary agents from all over the world to help them get their books published in foreign languages.
So what does the work of a foreign rights agent consist of?
First of all, I read—a lot. Yes, a good foreign rights seller has to LOVE reading! Even though Pierre Bayard wrote an entire book on how to talk about books you haven’t read, it’s virtually impossible to pitch a title to foreign publishers without having read (at least part of) it—which can be frustrating, as I have so many titles to read that sometimes I don’t even have the time to finish books that I’m really enjoying!
That brings us to the second stage of foreign rights sales: pitching titles! As soon as I’ve decided a title has enough potential abroad, we include it in our online catalog. We then send out a newsletter to present the title to our network of foreign publishers, literary scouts and co-agents.
You might think foreign rights sellers are rather invisible actors of the publishing scene, but let me introduce you to an even more obscure job: literary scouts. They try to discover possible bestsellers as early as possible and alert the foreign publishers they work for. This enables the latter to acquire the translation rights before everyone else knows about these titles, usually for a relatively low advance. You can find more information on scouts here. They are very important contacts for foreign rights sellers, as they can make or break a deal.
Additionally, we work with co-agents in territories other than our “specialty markets,” which are Holland, Scandinavia, Germany, France, and the English language. They are often locally based, know their specific market through and through, and handle submissions, rights inquiries, and negotiations on our behalf.
After our initial newsletter, we take the initiative to send the book and further information to those publishers who are likely to be interested in the title in question—because they have published (one of) the author’s previous titles, or the title is a great match with their catalog, or we know they are personally interested in the subject, or all of the above.
How do we know what foreign publishers like/dislike?
We’ve built relationships with them for many years, meeting with them in person during international book fairs, talking to them on the phone and via Skype. Interpersonal skills are extremely important in foreign rights sales, as personal relationships can (will!) make a real difference. Speaking another language besides English is also very helpful, as you connect more easily with the publishers of that specific language territory.
Attending international book fairs is truly indispensable, since that’s where most of the action happens! I visit two not-to-be-missed book fairs each year: the Frankfurt Book Fair which always takes place in October, and the London Book Fair in April. While I’m in Europe for these two fairs, I also like to visit publishers in Amsterdam and Paris, two of our “specialty markets.” Furthermore, I attend at least one other, more “local” book fair such as this year’s Rio de Janeiro and Gothenburg Book Fairs.
The Frankfurt and London Book Fairs can be compared to massive speed dating events: every 30 minutes I have meetings with different foreign publishers to whom I show our print catalogs and pitch specific titles. These meetings start at 9 am (sometimes even at breakfast) and last till 6 or 7 pm. In the evening I attend dinners and cocktail parties, which are great networking opportunities in a more relaxed atmosphere.
While these two fairs are the highlights of the international publishing calendar, we receive requests for titles and offers throughout the year.
When a Publisher Offers
If a foreign publisher offers for one of our titles, the first thing we do is check which other publishers in that specific country are also considering this title. Foreign rights agreements are always signed on an exclusive basis, which means we can only sign one contract with, say, a French publisher for the French translation rights in a specific title. This French publisher then owns the exclusive French rights for the duration of the agreement (between 5 and 10 years).
So it’s important to give the other French publishers who are also considering this title a chance to offer as well. We give them a deadline, usually one week to 10 days, to make a decision. If no one else offers, we start negotiating with the offering publisher.
If we receive one or several other offers, we organize an auction—that’s very exciting! We ask all offering publishers to send us their best offer, usually three or four days later. Note that “best offer” doesn’t always mean “highest offer.” Of course we take the advance they propose into account, but we also look at the other conditions like the proposed royalties, other titles and authors in their list, the publisher’s reputation, our previous experiences with them, etc. We submit the information about all the best offers to the rights holder of the book (our client), who will have the final say in which offer to accept. We do of course give our opinion!
After the Deal
Our involvement doesn’t end once a contract is signed: further activities include closely following the publication process, making sure due payments are made and complimentary copies are sent (so you can show off that French or Korean edition of your book!), and receiving and checking annual sales reports.
You get it, being a foreign rights agent is an incredibly varied job! Every day is filled with different activities and challenges, and that’s what I love about it. You make books travel and authors happy, get to travel yourself, meet interesting people from all over the world, and get to read some of the most inspiring books around!
WOW, great to see how it all works! Thank you very much, Marleen. This is such great information to have on hand, and demystifies the process for all of us.
Your Turn: Do you have a Foreign Rights Agent? Have you looked into getting one? Which language would you love to see your future book translated into? Tell us in the comments!
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Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.