The world is flat, asserts Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times foreign affairs columnist and the author of the best-selling book by the same name. Never before have opportunities been distributed so evenly among people of color, countries and gender. Especially for writers.
Selling work to countries outside your own isn’t just an ego boost (although it can be when you get fan mail from Korea). It can be a lucrative business model for authors no matter where you are and what kind of publishing deal you have.
Here’s a primer on how the publishing world is going global and why you should care.
Why should authors care about foreign rights and reaching international audiences? Extra income, says literary agent Kristen Nelson, whose agency, The Nelson Literary Agency, has represented authors such as David Ramirez who had auctions in territories abroad after receiving so-so deals at home. “It’s really fun to see that there are some authors who are actually having more success abroad than they are necessarily having in their home territory of the United States,” she says. “And how are you going to know that, leverage that and potentially use that in your career if you’re not exploring those markets abroad?”
For some writers, foreign rights sales can be free money and additional recurring paychecks for no extra work. This is especially true for authors who’ve sold world rights to their publishers or handed over the whole aspect to their agents to handle, but indie authors are increasingly getting into the act as well. “What we’ve seen in this digital space so far is the explosion of primarily the U.S. e-book market,” says New York Times and USA Today best-selling thriller author Joanna Penn, whose books have sold in 58 countries. She cites India as a prime example of a market that’s beginning to grow because many English speakers who are middle-class, educated, increasingly rich and upwardly mobile reside there – more than the English speakers in her home country of England. The potential in Asia and Africa excites her as well. “What we’re seeing in the rest of the world [outside of the U.S. and U.K.] is this emergence of digital and mobile economies. I read on a cell phone a lot, and I think that’s going to be the future,” she says.
Penn, who is based in London and runs the popular website TheCreativePenn.com, says income from her foreign sales is a trickle right now, a few hundred dollars here and there, but it was zero last year, and she’s excited about what it can be five years from now. “I’m an author for the long-term,” she says. “This is not about next month’s sales or next year’s sales. This is hopefully for the next 50 years of my life and then 70 years after I die. People need to have that long-term perspective. It’s not about hitting the number one in America next week. It’s about this long-term global digital world.”
Like Penn, other authors have discovered that the few hundred here and there can add up quickly, especially when you start talking about not only English-language sales in more than 50 countries, but also translated editions within those countries.
“If you’re not exploring those foreign markets, it seems to me that you’re leaving out a revenue source,” says Nelson. “And if your whole goal is to be a full-time writer, then why would you ignore any opportunity or outlet that is going to generate that revenue for you?”
The timing of foreign rights sales can vary from book to book, says Andrew Lownie of the London-based Andrew Lownie Literary Agency. “Often we try at an early stage and if it hasn’t sold, we come back again at a later stage,” he explains. His agency will often try to sell foreign rights when a book has failed to sell in the U.K. “I’ve done that with a couple of books, most recently a book called Born into the Children of God about a cult, which we sold to Germany first and then sold to Harper Collins off the back of that,” he says. The agency also sends out translations when it has made sales in the U.S. and U.K., preferably in both. The third most important period for foreign rights sales to traditional publishers is made during the three international book fairs: Frankfurt in October, London in April and Book Expo America in New York City in late May/early June. Foreign rights sales will also happen when something’s reported in the news, a film is coming out or a current event related to that book’s theme takes place. “For example, Amy Winehouse dies, it’s a chance to sell foreign rights to her biography that’s been out for a while,” says Lownie.
If you’re an indie author, however, don’t rush. For self-published authors, it’s definitely worth waiting to see how the book does in English before deciding whether you want to explore partnerships with other publishers, seek out literary representation for foreign territories or take on the Herculean task of commissioning translations yourself.
While international sales are all equal for the mainstream author who’s simply receiving and depositing the foreign rights checks, indie authors will quickly notice that some territories deliver fatter paychecks than others.
It comes down to the economy, says Lownie. “Brazil is quite strong. For a time Spain wasn’t very good, because it was having its troubles. Poland, I’ve found, is a good market because I do a lot of history books. The Asian market is strong for books on business, self-help and psychology. So it depends on the subject matter. Inspirational memoir works very well in places like Portugal and Poland, but doesn’t work so well in other territories, so you can’t generalize.”
That said, it’s worth exploring all possible markets for those surprise successes that no one can foresee, especially for indie authors. While some of the territories come up repeatedly as good ones to explore – France and Germany are traditionally big markets – some may be wild cards that you might not have anticipated, such as Taiwan, Korea or Nigeria. “It is quite patently obvious with the rise of self-publishing that publishers have not accounted for everyone’s taste,” says Penn. “Basically what has been published in a country has driven what is bought in a country. As we’ve seen in America, there have been plenty of books that are making plenty of sales that publishers have either turned down or said there’s no market for. So I don’t worry about this at all.”
Her advice? Start exploring new markets and see what sticks.
There are several ways to increase your international reach and sell foreign rights, but basically, it comes down to one question: Are you a traditionally published or indie published author?
If your book has been published traditionally, look closely at your contract. If you’ve sold World Rights to your book (which is negotiated into your advance), there’s not a lot you can do except ask the publisher’s foreign rights department what it is doing and how you can help. If, however, you’ve only sold your publisher North American rights, then it’s up to your agent, if you have one, to sell those rights in other countries. This gives your agent (and you) more control over where you’re selling, to whom and for how much, since each deal is negotiated separately.
With the first strategy, your foreign rights sales will go toward your advance, which means that you won’t see any additional money until your advance is earned out, even if you do see a ton of foreign rights sales. With the second strategy, you can start receiving money immediately, especially if those sales are big ones, but most agents don’t actually have foreign contacts to get those sales and therefore partner with other specialized agencies, which does mean that you’d give up 20 percent or more in agency fees with each additional sale.
But it’s with indie publishing where the fun (and the work) really begins for authors who are truly looking to explore global markets.
Indie authors have three basic options when it comes to selling foreign rights for both English language editions and translations of their work.
1. Hire a translator and sell to readers directly or through e-retailers.
While Amazon’s Kindle Digital Publishing and Barnes & Noble’s PubIt! program both offer authors the option to distribute in international markets, the author is responsible for the translation and editing of that work. Partnering with translators on a royalty split can mean low risk for you and a good source of income for the translator should sales take off, a win-win situation that Penn has recently started exploring. She’s partnered with translators to bring her work to readers in German, Italian and Spanish and offered them a 50-50 royalty split. She advises that writers test the market with one language to see how working with translators goes and to test their comfort level with losing that control. “If you can get several books in the same language at once, that’s really useful,” she suggests, “because one book in any language is never going to make any impact whatsoever. You always need to have multiple books.”
2. Sell your rights directly to foreign publishers.
This is one of the more popular ways of selling foreign rights, but it does take a lot of work and understanding of the industry. If you do manage to sell foreign rights to publishers abroad, they become responsible for translations, book covers and even marketing, which means there’s little work for the author once he or she has found a publisher in each country. Moreover, new services are developing all the time that connect indie authors to small foreign publishers looking to acquire titles. PubMatch.com and IPRLicense.com are popular sites that connect foreign publishers with indie authors, and the recently launched Babelcube.com offers to match authors with translators.
If you’re selling directly to publishers, read your contract meticulously. “There should always be a finite term of license on a foreign territory contract,” says Nelson. “What I mean by a finite term of license is that you’re granting the license to the foreign publisher for, usually five, six or seven years, and at the end of that term, the contract expires. It doesn’t matter if the book is doing well or not. If the publisher would like to renew the contract, they can talk to you and pay another advance to continue selling the title in that territory.” She also suggests looking thoroughly over the royalty structure, making sure the publisher is paying the translator and that you’re not responsible for any of the actual publishing of the book in that territory.
3. Get an agent to sell foreign rights.
This model is a favorite among indie authors, many of whom like the idea of retaining control over their titles while still being able to use the expertise and connections of a literary agent for international sales. However, for agents, it’s usually a hard sell. Nelson, who has taken on many indie authors, including Hugh Howey, points out that it’s usually after a self-published author has broken out into the market and proven a successful track record that agents want to work on selling those foreign rights, not before.
“Foreign rights is more about volume than it is about the big money, although don’t get me wrong, you can of course have a big auction and sell something for big money in foreign territories, and I’ve done it,” she explains. “Generally, foreign publishers are going to be looking for a sales track record that can make it enticing for them to take a chance on an author that doesn’t have a corresponding U.S. publisher.”
This basically means that if you’re an unknown with only a couple thousand copies sold, you’re not going to be able to get an agent interested.
Regardless of when you do it and how, global markets are no longer an area local authors can afford to ignore. “You don’t have to be a best-seller at all,” says Penn. “With little trickles of income coming from all of these different markets, it’s surprising how fast it all adds up. When you’re in print, e-book and audiobook format in multiple languages, multiple countries, and multiple stores, it ends up being a lot of trickles.”
Mridu Khullar Relph is a freelance journalist who divides her time between New Delhi and London. She has written for The New York Times, TIME, The Independent, CNN and ABC News.