To Keep or to Sell Foreign Rights to your Novel

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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?


Well, maybe.


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.

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13 comments to To Keep or to Sell Foreign Rights to your Novel

  • Congrats on the 3 book deal and the foreign sales. Even without a rule of thumb, it’s good to hear about your experience and how things could work in either event.

  • That’s great news, AJ. Congratulations! I think a key point you hit upon is understanding the capabilities of your agent. Some agencies (Jabberwocky comes to mind) have extensive contacts and influence in foreign markets. Other agencies have no foreign reach of any kind. And of course, there’s plenty in the middle. Knowing what your agent can realistically do for you should be a major factor in this decision.

  • A.J., Congrats on the German sales. That’s wonderful. Just this week, I’ve been hearing other writers in our genre talk about how unpredictable the foreign sales market can be, reinforcing the idea that there is no rule of thumb. I enjoyed some early success in this regard, but more recently not so much. I’m hoping it will pick up again, though the Thieftaker books are tied so closely to U.S. history that they might have limited foreign appeal.

  • Thanks Dave, glad it’s helpful.

    Agreed, Stuart. Always good to know the strengths and limitations of your representation, and I think it’s fair to ask about these kinds of issues when you sign with an agency.

    Thanks David. Yes, after MASK I assumed I’d be selling everything all over the world and the money would just roll in. Not so much. Right now, of course, the usual unpredictability of the foreign markets is being further complicated by their various economic predicaments. No accident that I sold the new book in Germany and not in Greece…

  • AJ, Whoowhoo on the sales! (^v^v^v^ claps hands) A career in writing is like waves on a stormy ocean — a sickening up and down. But when you learn to ride the waves instead of fighting them, as you have clearly done, it gets so much easier.

    You and the AKA, Gwen, had very similar … um … timelines? Sale-lines? Whatever … of your first books. Gwen’s thriller agent sold foreign rights to Germany, Holland, and … maybe it was France, at Frankfurt Book Fair. Then that agent closed off all foreign sales, holding them to see what we’d be offered in US. It went to auction in US and UK. And some 20 more countries followed, buying. Lovely lovely money.

    Like yours, that agent was a thriller specialist, had fantastic contacts oversees, and at that time US thrillers were *the* books to buy. Not so much now. But my fantasy agent (waves to Lucienne!) knows her business, has great foreign contacts, and we’ve had a few good foreign sales, so I am hopeful for many more!
    Again — Congratulations!

  • Thanks Faith. I thought there was some overlap in our experience on this. Foreign sales really do feel like found money, don’t they? You can’t bank on them, so they are always a surprise when they come through. I’ll be interested to see what the long term difference is between keeping rights to sell ourselves and giving them up to the domestic publisher, but we’ll have to wait a couple of years before I have real info on that!

  • I can add one comment to the keeping/not-keeping foreign rights. Harlequin and all its sub compaines (including Mira, the Big-book/thriller company and Juno, the fantasy company) always require that they keep world rights. To fight that is a deal breaker, and they offer only (gasp) 4% to the writer. *But* I was published in over 20 countries with every single book, and that far exceeded the countries and dollar amounts I might have made with my agent selling subrights to several different countries. I was a bestseller in Estonia, BTW… (grins)

  • Wow, 4%??? That’s brutal. Still, nice to have the books in foreign places. I absolutely LOVE getting foreign editions of my books in the mail, even when I know I’m not making much off it: new cover art and my words in a language I can’t read? Priceless.

  • Oh! And you make no money up front. That 4% is all royalties.

  • A.J. – First, congrats on the German deal and on landing book three. Secondly, thanks for the big-picture overview. I’ve heard you tell the “Atreus” story once or twice before and each time I’ve thought, “Yeah, that’s the way to go; keep the foreign rights.” But this twist that you’ve put on the idea of foreign sales makes so much sense when you step back and look at it. It’s like Rashomon (the short-story): the more perspectives you get, the closer to the truth you’re likely to come. This has been educational in so many ways. Thank you.

  • Faith, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s not the author making the money but yikes!

    Ed,
    thanks. Glad this helped complicate what seemed formally straight forward. This seems to be my mission in life 🙂

  • Congrats on the sale! Germany is very much a big fan of YA right now! I also sold world rights to my books and my publisher’s been doing a great job. My German deal was for more than my US deal so I’ve already earned out my advance on my books before the first book is printed (which means royalties come faster too).

    I’ve definitely heard arguments on both sides but I’ve liked selling world because I feel like it’s less of a risk for the publisher — they’ll make their money back (hopefully) and want to continue to do business with me (again, hopefully). I’d never thought about how foreign interest could drive a change in the US treatment of a book but that makes total sense!