You may have seen my desperate plea for a newsletter topic on Twitter (I’m sorry) and here is the winner! Foreign rights. Let’s go over the basics of what that means, and how it’s usually handled by your agent or publisher.
What are foreign rights?
Foreign rights are who gets to translate a book into another language and/or who gets to export it to other countries. For ease of explanation, let’s assume that the book here is in English originally published in the North American territory (which is the US, Canada, the Philippines—yep!—and other various US territories). So any book not in English and not sold in North America is considered foreign rights.
Who controls the foreign rights?
Well, it depends on the contract. When you first sell your book, you will sell the publisher certain rights, which tells them where and how they get to publish the book. If you sell World rights, all languages to, let’s say, Random House, then Random House has the right to, but not the obligation to, sell books in English anywhere there is a market for them and to license the translation rights to a foreign publisher anywhere there is a market for those rights. It is not automatic or guaranteed that your book will be available anywhere but your home market, i.e. North America in English, in this case. They don’t automatically ship books everywhere just because they can.
You may also grant the publisher the World English rights, which means Random House can send books in English anywhere in the world, but can’t grant others the rights to translate it. Those are with you, and your agent helps sell those where there is a market for them.
Sometimes you might grant a publisher World or North American English + Spanish rights, but that’s rarer and very dependent on the project.
Ok, so how do these foreign rights get sold?
If the publisher controls the foreign rights, then their Subrights (Subsidiary Rights) department handles that. You will have little to no interaction with Subrights except emails that say Congrats! We sold your book in Turkey! Here are the details! Down the line, a translator may have questions about names/places/words in your book and you may be asked to comment on that. Or approve a cover of a foreign edition, in some cases. But outside of that, you do not likely have a close relationship with your foreign editors. Authors often have more interaction and say in the UK publication of their book, because of the lack of a language barrier, in most cases, but again, it will vary from book to book, house to house.
Subrights has existing relationships with foreign publishers, just like your agent has relationships with US publishers. They pitch them books and want to sell the rights! Everyone makes money when a foreign edition is sold, and that is a whole department’s job. Lack of sales does not necessarily mean lack of trying.
If you retained your foreign rights and they are being sold through your agent, your agency may have an in-house foreign rights department or your agent may use one or several co-agents. Co-agents are just other agencies that specialize in selling foreign rights for US agencies, either all over the world or in a specific territory/territories. Both are great. Your agency already has this set up. If you have distinct connections to publishers in a specific country or if your platform has specific traction in certain parts of the world, tell your agent because that is important to know.
Ok, my agent is doing my foreign rights. What happens?
Your agent will tell their foreign rights dept or co-agents about your book and give them all the info they need to make a great pitch—sales, reviews, the manuscript, the cover, anything that will help. Or they might do this themselves! Then foreign rights or the co-agents will send your book to the publishers they think will want to buy it, just like your agent did in the US. But there may not be a market for your book in every country. Even the UK! Their book market is a quarter of the size of ours, so not every book automatically gets published over there, just because it’s also in English. I know, it surprises everyone.
Because every market is its own discrete entity, your foreign rights sales will happen at their own pace. Some countries want to wait until your book comes out in the US before they decide. Some want it right away because your topic is super hot in Romania right now, or whatever. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ That’s why your agent works with experts in those territories who know what’s going on. What’s hot here is not hot everywhere. I remember much of Europe being behind the US’s trends when it came to YA paranormal romance. Vampires were flying off the shelves here, but not so much there. Again, these are distinct markets with their own trends and preferences. They are not outposts of US bookstores.
Your foreign rights team will send your book to foreign publishers. As above, it’s a slow process without much transparency, usually due to the volume of titles they’re sending out. Ask your agent for info! Be prepared for answers to take a long time!
What if my book doesn’t sell overseas?
Sometimes that’s how it goes. Think about how many books from translations you see on the shelves. When did you read one last? Now multiply that by every book market in the world. A tiny fraction of books overall are sold overseas. It’s great when it happens, but it is not guaranteed. Ask your agent as many questions as you want until you are satisfied with their answers. But sometimes the answer is there wasn’t a market for it.
Take care friends. Wear a mask. Be kind. Be patient.
Thanks for this, Kate!
Way back in the 1980s, as arranged by book packagers/producers, I signed a large publisher's contract for my first book, which was non-fiction...no agent involved. The agreement was for a fixed payment for the first print run, and $X per copy printed in each subsequent edition. But between signing and completion of the text and illustrations, the rights were also sold to a Big5 publisher in the UK. This allowed both companies to share the first print run and just add different titles and covers...so no extra payment to me for the foreign edition. I wonder if something like this could still happen?
I will always be grateful the initial publisher took a chance in offering me the deal, and both books have been great in establishing my credentials for writing new books for other publishers over the years - and one did go to multiple re-prints - but I strongly believe an agent's contract negotiation is advantageous.