December 15th, 2009 by Joe Nassise
Foreign Rights (otherwise known as selling your novel more than once!)

Foreign Rights

We all know the drill. You bust your hump writing your latest novel. Your agent sells it to a major New York publisher. You wait another ten to eighteen months before your book sees print. You’re excited, enthused, ready to take on the world – this is the book that is going to be your breakout work. Big time here you come!

Six weeks later your newest “masterpiece” is relegated to the returns bin in the back of the store, waiting to be sent back to the publisher.

When looking at your next work, your publisher glances at your sales figures for that book, says “eh” and you find yourself wondering what happened to that terrific relationship the two of you had as that next book is turned down flat.

Obviously, there is a lot happening here. Marketing and promotion play a major role in how your work fares in the marketplace. So do reader interests and society’s latest trends. Many of these issues are outside the author’s control.

But at the same time there are things that can be done to bolster that initial relationship. One area many authors are unfamiliar with (or don’t take the time to look into) is foreign rights sales.

For the uninitiated, typically a publisher buys a certain set of rights, permissions to publish the book in a certain geographical area. First US rights, first English language rights, first World rights – the variations are seemingly endless. There are also film and theatrical rights, graphic novel rights, comic rights, audio rights, etc. As a writer, you will get paid each time a new set of rights is sold. For instance, my novel HERETIC was acquired by the Book of the Month Club and the money earned in that sale was used to help my book earn back a fair portion of its advance before it ever hit the streets.

Foreign rights work the same way. Each sale earns the author more money. That money is applied against their advance until that advance earns out. Once it does, the author starts earning royalties, a situation we all like to be in. On the publishers end, the book is more successful with each sale made. So you would think that most publishers or author’s agents would be actively working to sell additional foreign rights for the titles they acquire.

You would think.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Publishers might be too tied up with their latest blockbusters to push foreign rights for your new mass market paperback, particularly if you are writing in a genre like horror. Your agent might not have an interest in foreign sales or might be partnered with a sub-rights agent who doesn’t have the same faith in your work. Like most everything else in the publishing industry, there are a thousand different variables that come into play.

As an author, you CAN do something about this. Educate yourself on what’s selling where. Understand what foreign publishers regularly buy translations to be republished in their country. Know who the editors are who are making those acquisitions. Inform your sub-rights department (if your publisher controls foreign rights) or your agent (if they do not). I try to provide both my sub-rights rep and my agent with a list every few months of foreign publishers who have acquired book similar to my own, at least in general terms, and politely suggest that they submit to these individuals, citing these recent acquisitions. At worst, all it means is a few minutes of work and another rejection. At best, another sale. And that sale can increase your worth in the eyes of your publisher, making them more prone to attempt other foreign rights sales or more interested in your next book.

And that’s a good thing.

There are several places you can do some research with regard to foreign publishers. I’ll suggest two, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. The first way is to make a habit of researching publishers in your local library’s International Literary Marketplace. This exhaustive book lists all of the works coming out from foreign publishers and provides information about the publishing companies themselves. (I suggest the library edition because the book – or the online version at – is damned expensive.) Another way to do it is to join as a member (something like $15 or $20 per month, if memory serves) and use their Deal List to review recent sales of foreign rights. The advantage of this latter method is that it often tells the name of the agent who sold the rights as well as the name of the editor who bought them.

In today’s market, making that first sale is great. But selling that book two, three, four or more times means greater success for you and greater interest from your publisher.

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2 comments to “Foreign Rights (otherwise known as selling your novel more than once!)”

  1. Gillian Layne
     · December 16th, 2009 at 7:16 am · Link

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a blog post on this topic before. I’m definitely printing this off to keep as a reference. Thanks for pointing out another way to be proactive in our career.

  2. Karin M
     · October 5th, 2013 at 12:51 pm · Link

    You may be interested to know that someone has published a terrible machine translation of this article in French:

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