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Foreign Rights — Found Money

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August is the month that we gear up for the Frankfurt Book Fair. This is the time when we schedule most of our appointments for the October show in Frankfurt, Germany.

If you have only worked in national shows, you are familiar with the strolling of the aisles by attendees and the attempt to capture a moment of their time by the exhibitors. Frankfurt is completely different. It’s a “by appointment only” show. The first year we attended Frankfurt, we had very few appointments since we knew absolutely no one other than the US publishers attending this show. We, like many other first-timers, had to hustle around the floor and try to see if anyone had time left in their schedules to see us. We got a few appointments, and on the last two days of the show, after the foreign publishers were finished seeing everyone else, some of them strolled our way. So we had a chance to capture their attention and discuss our books. This led to a development of a list of contacts which now exceeds 600.

Publishers from all countries with all types of titles are looking to acquire books from US publishers. Why? In many cases, it is less expensive to acquire a title than to develop it with an author. Also, the US is known to be leaders in the field in certain types of books. We’re always asked, “What type of books should be sent to Frankfurt?” Let’s first discuss what type of books should NOT be sent:

1. Books that contain many, many US references. If you are referring to addresses, telephone numbers, and/or names of US-based companies throughout your book, don’t send it. If, on the other hand, you have a book that contains generic information throughout the book and then references some US sources on the last few pages, do send it, since foreign publishers can understand that they can delete these pages and, perhaps, tailor them to their specific countries’ needs. But if US references are sprinkled throughout, forget foreign rights.

2. Poetry or rhyming material. This just does not translate with the same words, the same cadence, the same meaning. Focus on the US, but not the international market.

3. Books with too many idiomatic expressions, either throughout the book or in the title. While they may be cute in the US, they are not understandable in many other cultures. I remember trying to explain a title to a Chinese publisher last year. Our conversation could easily have been made into a skit for Saturday Night Live. We had the title, How to Dump Your Wife, with us. This Chinese publisher asked, “What is ‘Dump’?” I explained it translated to divorce. To which he queried, “What is Divorce?” I then tried to explain that term. Again, a puzzled expression appeared on the publisher’s face. Finally he said, “I don’t have a wife.” So we moved on to another book!

4. Books that contain too many pictures of American people. Believe it or not, Americans have a certain look that is quite different from other nationalities. If the book has lots of photographs that cannot be used by the foreign publisher, he or she knows that pictures will have to be shot for his/her version of the book. This would be too expensive so they probably will decide to develop a product on their own.

5. Humor books. Humor differs so greatly from country to country. What is funny to the Germans many not be the least bit funny to the Dutch or the French—and vice versa.

What to send:

1. Business books continue to sell, sell, sell. The US is looked upon as the leader in the business book area, whether the subject is team management, working with difficult people, how to build and grow a company, time management, etc. These books attract the attention of many different countries.

2. Psychology/self-help books. Again, the US is looked upon as being the leaders in this field. One of the books we sold last year to a German publisher in this area sold through with the same front cover, which astounded me. Normally the country changes the front cover to attract their specific audience. The book was Blues Busters and the front cover contained a close up of lots of jelly beans.

3. Health books and natural-healing books. With the health books, however, make sure that if you refer to medications, these medications are universally available. A year or two ago we had a few books on melatonin, which received lots of requests for reading copies. Last year, we found out that certain European countries pulled melatonin off the market, and the books were no longer of interest to the requesting companies.

4. Spiritual/New Age books. There is still a steady flow of requests for these books from many countries throughout Europe and the world. The natural healing and homeopathy cross over into this area as well.

5. Film and television books, especially if the books focus on shows that are currently being shown in Europe. We had some old Star Trek books with us a few years ago which were very popular. One reason was that the original Star Trek is currently being shown on many European TV stations.

6. Fiction, especially New Age and gay/lesbian fiction. The US is again known as being in the forefront in these type of genres.

Here are some other thoughts to consider when looking at your books for foreign rights:

How big is your book? How many pages? Thin books sell easier than fat books since the time to translate the text must be taken into consideration for the overall cost of the book’s development at a foreign house.

Have you previously sold foreign rights? If so, to whom and how well did that publisher/country do with your title? These figures may cause you to be able to negotiate for more money.

Offers will vary drastically depending upon the economy of the country making the offer and the size of the publishing house. A small emerging nation will not have much money right now. However you may consider working with them to develop a relationship so that your next titles will sell through directly to them. Also you may be helping them to be able to offer you more money in the future.

Since there are so many variables in foreign rights, it would be difficult to present a “standard” contract. You should always have an attorney involved in developing these contracts since you must understand what you are selling and the time period for which you are selling. You can have a basic contract developed with variables that may be used over and over again. Some of the variables to be considered include: Are you selling world or regional rights? Are you including artwork . . . and do you have the right to include this artwork when selling foreign rights? What is the time frame the acquiring publisher is working within to develop your product in their language . . . and if this is not achieved, what is your recourse? How and when will payments occur? What about electronic rights? These are just a few of the questions that arise when you negotiate, and, of course, each side is attempting to negotiate the best deal for him/her. You should also know the laws of the lands before signing any contract as well. As an example, the penalty for plagiarism in the UK is much more lenient than in the US. Protect yourself before you sign the contract and you will have a smoother relationship afterward.

What can you really get out of a foreign rights deal? First of all, found money. You already have the product. Now you will license that product to another company so that they may pay you a fee to become the publisher of your title in that country. There is usually an up-front advance and royalties are very similar to those in the US. On the first print run, they can range anywhere from 7.5-10%, and on subsequent print runs, they can escalate from 10-12.5%, sometimes higher. Again, these are extremely variable and many times are based on the amount of money advanced. Secondly, you can make yourself look good in the eyes of your author. Every author I have ever met loves to relate how many different languages they have been translated into. Author loyalty is a big plus from foreign rights sales.

So here we are in August, making our appointments and looking forward to renewing acquaintances with now “old friends.” It’s amazing how people you meet once or twice a year do become friends and how you can anticipate their needs and show them just the right book when they come to meet with you at your stand. Ten years ago, when we first started to go to Frankfurt, we had four or five appointments before the fair. By the end of this month, the three of us who work the fair will have in excess of one hundred appointments. The show opens at 9 am each day and closes at 6:30 pm. We will have one appointment booked each half hour on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and most of Saturday. Sunday we leave open for new acquaintances and walk up appointments or for people we had been unable to reach by fax to make an appointment.

Since I feel that you are the best salesperson for your title(s), I hope that one day those of you with book lines will be able to join us in Frankfurt and work within our exhibit complex to get a taste of publishing that you will never experience in the US.

This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor August, 1997, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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