Foreign Rights: How Authors Tap a Rich Vein of Royalties

Chinese book
Chinese book

Despite ever-increasing caution on the part of the book industry, publishing a book has never been easier. Between the recent explosion of e-reading devices, generous royalty rates from online retailers and enticing tales of six-figure incomes, self-publishing is becoming an attractive option for many aspiring authors.

Frustrated by the slow, conservative pace of traditional publishing, writers are abandoning their agent search in droves to stride out into the Brave New Publishing World.

But as they weigh the financial pros and cons of self-publishing, there's one potentially lucrative market that do-it-yourselfers often overlook: foreign rights sales. The right to translate and sell a book in another country falls under the umbrella of subrights, which include film, merchandising, audio and other e-related rights, such as electronic, electronic version, enhanced e-book and multimedia.

While the resulting books and products can bring a great deal of money and visibility, this vein of gold is generally available only to traditionally published authors because foreign rights sales necessitate either a publisher with a foreign rights department, or a foreign rights agent who has detailed and specialized knowledge. For most self-published authors, determining what kind of books sell best in which countries, which publishers are most reputable and which contractual terms are reasonable is exceedingly difficult.

Finding Great Deals on Foreign Shores

"Foreign rights sales and royalties are one of the best deals a writer can get. I look at it as free money because I get paid to do nothing," says Joe Moore, a bestselling thriller author whose novels are published in more than 20 languages. "Selling the rights to a Lithuanian publisher might only generate an advance of a few hundred dollars, but a publisher in Italy or the Netherlands might pay tens of thousands up front for the same book."

U.K. novelist Eliza Graham agrees. "Good foreign rights deals can be like Santa coming back again on Christmas Eve with another stocking for you. My German rights deal has earned me several times more than my books have earned in my home territory of the U.K." But while the big deals can lead to lots of money, Graham notes that "Even smaller deals can make a big difference to an author's finances and profile. And you don't have to write a single new sentence."

As Moore and Graham demonstrate, royalties can greatly vary from country to country, which makes it important to know what kinds of books will sell in each area. One prominent literary agency, Folio Literary Management has an active foreign rights department that does hundreds of deals for their clients every year. "We're constantly meeting with editors from all over the world," says agent Molly Jaffa, "and we also attend the three major international book fairs. On a daily basis, I'm emailing with agents and editors from places as far-flung as Turkey, Romania, Italy and Brazil to discuss deals and work out contracts."

In addition to her extensive contacts, Jaffa also brings a great deal of knowledge to the table: "I have to be familiar with all of our clients' books, because when a foreign editor comes to town, it's my responsibility to know what genres are working in his or her country and how to pitch the best matches from the hundreds of books on Folio's list."

The Best Country for Each Book

Celeste Fine, senior vice president and director of subsidiary rights at Folio, says: "Every time we sell a book in the U.S., we discuss the book's potential in foreign markets. For instance, a business or science book has tremendous potential in Asia. Ten years ago, Japan was a major market, with sizable advances and consistent acquisitions. Today, Japan's economic situation has made it a less active territory, and we look to Korea to acquire books early with strong advances."

On the other hand, while some books travel well across borders, Fine notes that other things can be lost in translation: "While celebrity and television tie-ins do incredibly well in the U.S., they are harder to sell abroad unless the figure has a major global presence.

It doesn't help that readers are tightening belts around the globe. As fine notes, "Literary fiction does well in France. Italy is good for women's fiction, but they, too, have been hit hard by the economy." In other other countries, however, readers and publishers are still eager to open their wallets for promising titles: "Brazil loves dogs and inspirational books, and they have been buying early and aren't shy about six-figure advances for the right book. Turkey has also been doing well. Basically, look at the country's economy, and you can tell how publishing is doing."

E-rights abroad are not yet a factor, because the Kindle and other e-readers are either not available, or not yet popular in many foreign markets. "It's like 2007 when it comes to e-rights," Fine says. "Yes, they exist, but they aren't paid much mind."

The Downside. . .And the Up

Foreign rights sales can be complicated by the fluctuating currency exchange. "When my debut thriller was bought by Bantam UK, the Canadian dollar was low and the British pound was high," explains Canadian author Grant McKenzie. "Then the Canadian dollar began to climb, while the pound and euro faltered. When I received the second half of my advance upon publication 12 months later, it was considerably lower. My second book was purchased for the same amount as my first, but the new exchange rate meant I was actually making between $10,000 to $15,000 less -- a significant amount when you consider how little most first-time authors make."

But for most authors, the advantages of foreign sales far outweigh any drawbacks. And for authors exhausted by the seemingly endless book signings, interviews, blog tours and other nonwriting activities that have become an essential part of book promotion, foreign rights sales are doubly attractive. When it comes to promoting their foreign editions, because of distance and language barriers, authors are off the hook.

"I had to agree to a film crew coming over for a weekend and making a video about me, and that was it," says Graham of her German publisher's marketing efforts for her first novel. "They spent a lot of money on TV advertising. It was an eye-opener! But I didn't have to do anything else, no blogging, chasing reviews, etc. Very spoiling."

Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of the environmental thrillers Freezing Point and Boiling Point. The co-founder of the online writers community Backspace, she also serves on the board of directors of the International Thriller Writers. Visit Red Room to find out more about her books and to read her blog.