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Selling foreign rights to your book

Books on the worldThe last few days have seen the annual Frankfurt International Book Fair. This is one of the biggest events of the publishing world and has been happening since the seventeenth century. It is a great occasion for people in the publishing industry to mingle, network and do business (although this extends to a few weeks before and after the fair where a lot of the deals are initiated and concluded), and most of all drink. It is also arguably the biggest event where the sale of foreign rights for books is discussed and concluded.

Since there has been talk in various blogs on how authors can make millions through the sale of foreign rights, without lifting a finger I want to clarify a few points.

If you want to sell foreign-language rights to your book, you need first of all to make sure that you are the copyright owner – if you have passed the copyright to your publisher, the contract will specify the details of the royalty you receive when the rights are sold.

If you own the copyright, you need to find foreign publishers who are interested in publishing your book, i.e. who are willing to spend (their) money on the bet that your book will sell. Because they will take care of the translation, production and printing of the book, with all the corresponding costs, they usually want to make sure the book is going to sell well – the additional costs of translation increase the risk.

You know how difficult it is to have your book accepted by an agent or a publisher? This is because the publishers need to make sure they are going to recoup their costs if they publish your book, and pay a few bills (publishers do go grocery shopping, too). After all, they need to pay for everything straight away, and if the book doesn't sell, it's their financial outlay, not yours. You can well imagine that with higher costs it is even more difficult to sell foreign rights and convince a foreign publisher to invest their money.

Foreign rights professionals in all publishing houses have a large network of contacts, including publishers in other countries and in other languages, know the various markets and what, if any, changes need to be made even at this stage to make a book more saleable in a different market. Publishers often employ scouts to inform foreign colleagues and to create a buzz around a book that is selling well, or that has good potential even before it is published.

When a foreign publisher is interested, the editor usually gets sent a free copy of the book. Should they be interested in pursuing the sale, negotiations start and, all going well, a contract is signed a few weeks later.

So, despite the claim of some bloggers that once you've written a book you just sit back and respond to the dozens of requests for foreign rights and Hollywood deal, it doesn't really work like that. If you don’t want to employ an agent, you need to do the legwork by contacting foreign publishers (many don't actively search foreign books since they have enough in their own language) and basically “selling” the book to them. It is not enough to send an email with your name and the title of your book – you need to make it interesting enough for them to request a copy.

You then need to make sure you are  the commercial terms of the contract and the legal terms of the contract too. For this, as for a publishing contract, it is generally best to get the advice of someone in the business or a lawyer.
In practice, a lot of authors don't even bother trying to sell foreign rights, but it might be an interesting avenue to pursue. As in many other areas of the business, publishers often have people employed specifically for this purpose and it is unlikely that one person is able (skill-wise and time-wise) to carry out all the steps of the process successfully.

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