Slow boat to China: What you need to know about foreign rights

Clipper ship leaving Boston Harbor, by Fitz Henry Lane, The Athenaeum. Wikimedia Commons
Clipper ship leaving Boston Harbor, by Fitz Henry Lane, The Athenaeum. Wikimedia Commons

This post was originally published in the Romance Writers Report as “Putting Your Books on the Slow Boat to China,” and appears here courtesy of Eloisa James.

Foreign Sales (selling your book to a publisher in Spain or China) feels like the farthest thing from your mind when you get “the call.” I was willing to sign away my first-born out of pure gratitude that someone actually wanted to buy my book. When my agent, Kim Witherspoon of InkWell Management, informed me that she was rejecting Bantam’s request for my foreign rights, I was confused. What are foreign rights, and what good is it to keep them or give them away? The answer to that question is rather complicated and depends entirely on your publisher, where you are in your career, and what kind of agent is representing you.

Let’s start with the basics. Foreign rights are the right to sell your novel abroad. Foreign rights can include the right to sell without translation (say, in England or Australia) and the right to translate your novel. Agents and publishers both sell foreign rights, so it becomes one of the myriad clauses in a publication contract negotiated between the two entities.

First question: Is it even possible to keep your foreign rights? For many new authors starting at the bottom of the food chain it is not a possibility. Several editors flatly told me that for a new author in a non-auction situation, an agent’s mandate to keep foreign rights would be a deal-breaker. This is absolutely the case at Harlequin, which has one of the largest and most powerful foreign distribution networks in publishing. One long-time Harlequin author told me that country by country, category authors don’t earn much, but added up, it can amount to half her earnings on any given book. You wouldn’t want to think about keeping your foreign rights in this situation, even if it were possible.

But let’s say you could keep your foreign rights, albeit with a struggle. For example, your career is going along nicely and you’re taking a leap up in status by moving to a new house. Your agent suggests that you might be able to keep your foreign rights. What kind of things should you keep in mind while making this decision?

Can Your Agent Sell Foreign Rights?

A crucial question is whether your agent is capable of selling those foreign rights herself. Many authors choose their agent based on editorial compatibility or knowledge of the New York publishing market—not necessarily the same as an ability to pitch foreign agents in the Frankfurt and/or London Book Fairs about your books. In short, it’s important that your agent either be very skilled in foreign sales, or have a separate, dedicated agent in-house for foreign sales.

Another consideration is whether you feel you will have a long partnership with your current agent. If you switch agents, you’re facing a situation in which a disenchanted agent will retain foreign rights to the books you wrote while with her. It’s possible she’ll give them to the new agent… but she may well just hold onto them and see whether you become a bestseller. At the same time, a publisher could have been actively sending you checks for those books.

But would your publisher do a good job of selling the book? Publishers, like agents, vary in this regard. Some publishers do not put any effort into selling genre novels abroad. In that case, if they’ll let you keep your rights, you might as well.

On the other hand, many publishers have foreign sales departments that do a brilliant job. A large publisher might send as many as 20 people to the Frankfurt Book Fair. Carolyn Bodkin, the foreign rights manager for Harper Collins, noted that “as a large global house, we attract many international publishers to our stand at all the international book fairs. We have plenty of display space and lots of dedicated rights people to pitch the books. We are meeting with foreign publishers throughout the year as well, and I think our ability to stay on top of who’s acquiring the romance writers abroad is achieved by our staying in constant contact with international editors.”

What’s more, a large publisher might well sell books in groups of five or six novels, enabling a debut author to get sales in exotic countries where her agent could never place her based on her name alone. It’s expensive to sell books to a foreign market. Someone either has to send a bunch of copies to Bulgaria, or go to the Frankfurt Book Fair, and likely both. But large publishers have agents in many, many foreign countries. They do a good job of monitoring when licenses run out, and they can chase after money when it’s not forthcoming from a two-bit publisher in a far-away land.

[…]you shouldn’t think of an inability to keep foreign rights as a depressing reflection of your place in the food chain.

Thus you shouldn’t think of an inability to keep foreign rights as a depressing reflection of your place in the food chain. Authors starting out at large houses often make solid royalties off of foreign sales. Initially foreign sales are applied against an author’s advance, but once the advance is earned out, foreign sales join your royalties and turn into checks twice a year. I know of a bestselling author whose publisher has put her book in 15 countries. Could a top-notch agent do that? Maybe. Those were guaranteed sales for her.

The Question of Your Advance

A third issue comes into play now, though, and that is your advance. Let’s say that your agent has a lively, committed foreign rights agent in her office, and she thinks she will be able to keep your foreign rights. It’s time to think about money.

When my agent sells my foreign rights, I keep the profits, minus her 10% and her foreign co-agent’s 10%. So I end up with 80% of the advance. If a publisher sold my foreign rights, they would take 25% and give me 75%. I would thus end up with 63.75% (85% of that 75%, because 15% would go to my agent).

That’s only a 16.25% difference, which doesn’t seem like very much. But now take into account the fact that your publisher will apply your foreign earnings to your advance. As Julia Quinn explains it, this “means that you may have to wait on the money. Also, even if your book has already earned out, you still have to wait until royalty time, because that’s when they cut checks.” If your agent had that advance, she would presumably send it to you immediately.

What’s more, if you receive a large advance (the kind that will never earn out until you start selling like Nora Roberts), you’ll never see any return for those foreign sales. Zero. The most you’ll get out of foreign sales is a handful of fan letters written in a language you don’t understand and the ability to put a lot of cool covers on your website. So think about it: 63.75% of nothing is a lot less than 80% of a foreign advance.

The most you’ll get out of foreign sales is a handful of fan letters written in a language you don’t understand and the ability to put a lot of cool covers on your website.

In the first few years, my agent sold hardly any of my books to foreign markets. I left Bantam and moved to Avon, still keeping my foreign rights. I was really wondering about the advisability of it. At that point, I’d sold to two or three foreign countries at most, but people on the Avon email loop were describing sales (through Avon) to all sorts of exotic countries: China, Brazil, France, England….

I called up my agent and complained that we didn’t seem to be selling much. “We’re not,” she said. “But when your sales take off, we’ll own the rights.” I grumpily agreed. Finally my domestic sales did take off. At first, foreign sales came in a trickle, with a few countries paying a thousand dollars here or there. But a weird thing happened last summer: I got an email from my foreign rights agent (a sub-agent at Inkwell Management) and her subject line was “Are You Sitting Down?”

There had been an auction. A heated auction, in which two publishers went at each other hammer and tongs, trying to best each other.

I have a friend who’s only managed to keep the foreign rights to three out of 11 books she’s written, but her agent has sold those three books in 14 countries. It was worth the fight to keep those three! As Paul Bradley, a foreign rights manager at Jed Mattes Inc., wrote in Publishers’ Weekly (Sept. 22, 2006), “There’s a lot of money to be made in the international rights market.” Teresa Medieros agrees. She pointed out that “foreign rights expire, which means that every few years they have to pay you all over again for the same book!” And while foreign markets fluctuate, Teresa finds that “Western Europe is always more lucrative than Eastern Europe, although the Eastern Europe money is steady. Germany is a huge market and Charming the Prince was the very first romance audiobook ever published there.”

Which Country is Most Profitable?

The question of which country is most profitable is endlessly debated by authors, naturally. A Harlequin author added Japan to the mix, telling me that she earned the bulk of her foreign money from Japan and Germany. I sold my first three books in German eons ago, for pennies. Well, umpteen years later, Potent Pleasures, my very first book, has just been re-bound and issued again by my German publisher.

That said, many foreign advances won’t seem like much money. The standard foreign advance is a formula: (foreign list price) x (anticipated print run) x (royalty rate—usually 5-7%) x 75%. I’ve sold a bunch of books to various countries for $1,000 each. The reason for low rates is the terrific competition. Let’s say that a publisher in Italy, for example, has decided to print three romances in a given month. They can select those books from many countries, including England. Therefore, advances tend to be pretty small unless an auction ensues, or unless your already-published books did very well in that country. But don’t underestimate those sales once your career gains velocity. A friend told me that last year’s earnings on 20 books in foreign markets came to $36,000.

Sometimes odd and wonderful things just happen, even without an auction. A friend of mine and myself both sold into a certain foreign country in the same six months—but she got $17,000 a book and I got $1,000. I inquired. It turned out that our agents sold the books to the same publisher. Well, there must have been an auction for her books, right? Nope. The publisher just loved her voice. They loved her so much that the foreign co-agent approached the writer’s previous publisher and bought her backlist, the books whose rights she had given away early in her career. Her howl of rage on hearing this echoed over several states. The ex-publisher took their foreign rights profits and applied them against her still-outstanding advance; if the author had kept her rights for those six books, she could have been $102,000 richer, minus 20% for her agent and the foreign agent.

Most authors with long-term careers find that their books are split between publishers and agents. This can actually work in your favor. After granting Avon her foreign rights for her first 10 novels, Julia Quinn started keeping them when she changed agents. “I recommend holding on to your foreign rights,” she says, “but on the other hand, it has worked out very well for me to have two different entities pushing my books in foreign countries. My agent can often get me into markets my publisher doesn’t and vice versa.”

Everyone knows that book sales are dwindling here in America as people watch more television and spend their time surfing eBay. But guess what, romance is a booming market in countries like Spain. Lisa Kleypas just did a book tour of Spain (paid for by her foreign publisher), and not only were rooms crowded, but a fan got so excited she fainted! My books are coming out in beautiful hardcover editions in Spain—and from what they tell me, they’re bestsellers. They haven’t offered me a tour yet, but believe me, I’m hoping.

Whether your publisher sells your books, or your agent does, the result can be something wonderful: letters from women who live continents away celebrating your work. In closure, I want to share an email I received in 2006. The subject line is: “reaktie op je boek.” I can’t be sure—in fact, I have little idea—but my guess is that it means something like “I read your book.” Which book? Who knows?

The email itself reads:

hallo eloisa,

Ik vond het een fantastisch boek toen ik begon te lezen werdt ik zo door het verhaal gegrepen dat ik niet meer kon op houden.

I’m thinking that she says one of my books was “fantastisch.” In fact, I think she may be saying that “it would be meer kon” (obviously: very cool) to meet me. Maybe that “boek toen” is “book tour” and she’s suggesting I “vond het” (come here) to meet my enthusiastic fans.

If only I knew where she was!

UPDATE: This piece was written in 2006, but it’s still pertinent. Some things that have changed are the ability to self-publish in countries like England and Australia (I’m doing it in England), and—if you want to pay for translation—in other countries as well. And it’s 2013, and I’m now published in 22 foreign countries, from Croatia to China)

Eloisa James

Eloisa James’s novels are published in 22 foreign countries (so far). Find out more about">Eloisa James.

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