As some of you may know, my publishing career began oddly. While one of my books was being submitted in the US, my agent and I learned that the book (The Mask of Atreus) had attracted foreign interest. As a result, we sold it to a Greek publisher and to another in Brazil before we landed a US deal.
Usually, US publishers will acquire world rights for a book they buy, sometimes nominally upping their original offer tot he author by ten or fifteen percent or so to compensate for what they might make from foreign sales. Of course, many US books wind up not getting published elsewhere so that 10% is, for those authors at least, found money. In my case, because of the Greek sale, foreign rights were not on the table, so Berkley bought simply the US/Canada English print rights. My agency’s foreign division continued to sell the book in other markets, and soon we had made about twenty five separate sales, some of them quite a bit more lucrative than my US deal.
Why this happened is a subject for another post (or would be if I could explain it adequately). My point today is that this was clearly a good thing, and it drove our negotiating policy thereafter. We held on to foreign rights for my other thrillers and for my fantasy books. So that’s the lesson, right? Hold on to foreign rights because they are potentially very profitable?
My subsequent thrillers sold more modestly overseas and though the later books are available in several markets, neither the range nor the advances were anything like as impressive as MASK. My fantasy series for Tor never sold in foreign markets (not yet, at least: I’m still hopeful) and remains available only in the US.
And there might be good reason to sell those foreign rights after all. Earlier this year I sold the first two books (one written, the other very loosely outlined) in a new middle grades/young adult series to another Penguin house. We fought to hold on to foreign rights but they were adamant, and we signed them away. Given the foreign performance of my most recent books, it didn’t seem like such a big deal.
I should add that (knowing the volatility of the market) I really wanted the publisher to commit to a longer series and asked when we could talk about book 3. They, understandably, said they would need to see sales numbers from book 1 before they extended the contract, though that would mean waiting almost two years.
My publisher took the new book to the annual Frankfurt Book Fair, where the largest number of foreign deals get done. The book landed a significant sale to a German company, a sale which more than paid off my advance for both books. A year from publication anywhere, my book was already profitable.
The consequences of this were significant. First, I made money. I didn’t get all of what the German publisher paid as I would have done had we retained the rights ourselves (less agency commission), but I did get a decent chunk of it as specified in the contract. Even when your publisher buys foreign rights, the revenue is shared with the author according to the percentage your agent was able to get in the original deal.
Second, it made the larger company (Penguin) aware of the book in ways they had not been before, in turn leading to the prospect of higher print runs and wider exposure. My book was suddenly less of a risk, because its basic costs had already been covered by the foreign publisher.
Third, it made my publisher commit to a third book after all, since they knew the German publisher would instantly reimburse them (and more) for whatever they paid me for it.
So here’s the thing. The fact that my thrillers did well overseas was a great thing for me and my bank balance at a time when I really needed it, but it did next to nothing for my US publisher who saw no revenue from those deals. The success of my YA book in Germany, however, is good for both me and my publisher. Most importantly, it’s good for the book and for the (3 book minimum) series.
A caveat. I know some authors who will say that many publishers don’t do a good job of selling foreign rights if they own them. Even globe-spanning houses like Penguin operate as separate companies, so a US deal with that company in no way guarantees a publication from its sister company in the UK. The book still has to be sold to the UK division, and often that doesn’t happen. The counter argument is, of course, that agents often don’t do a better job than publishers: holding onto the foreign rights will be worthless if your agent doesn’t have subagents on the ground in other countries actively and effectively promoting your work to publishers. Those publishers are, of course, completely separate, and each deal has to be hammered out independently necessitating that you and your agent have to be (as is often the case in publishing) lucky, good and well-connected.
Bottom line: I don’t know a good rule of thumb as to when to keep and when to sell foreign rights to your publisher and I’d be extremely wary of making it a deal-breaker. Some things you can do:
Assess the foreign appeal of the book as coolly as you can. Mask of Atreus was rooted in ancient and modern European history tied to Mycenean Greek artefacts and the second world war. It’s not an accident that the first deal came from Greece and that most of the rest came from northern and eastern Europe.
Assess your agency’s ability to reach foreign markets. Major publishers can do this relatively easily, even if they don’t always pursue it actively, but some small agencies just don’t have the reach.
Assess how much it matters to you to determine the specifics of these deals. When I held the rights, the agent who handles foreign affairs contacted me over each offer they received and made a recommendation (usually “take it!”) which I always followed. When Penguin owned the rights, they notified me of what deals they had already done after the fact. In real terms for me, the difference was negligible, though some situations might leave you wishing you had more control.
Assess which is more important: more money going directly into your pocket, or more money swelling your publisher’s coffers. Right now, with the economy as it is, I think there’s a lot to be said for being seen by your publisher as a stable source of revenue, doubly so if you are making fifty or seventy per cent of whatever they are making off foreign sales.