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Foreign Rights: Should You Work with an Agent?

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PUBLISHED OCTOBER 2017

by Victoria Sutherland, Publisher, Foreword Reviews magazine –


Victoria Sutherland

The worst thing you can imagine about foreign rights will happen if you don’t follow the proper procedures. For instance, you get an inquiry from a foreign publisher. You choose to work on the follow-up yourself and send PDF reading copies via email to the interested publisher. A couple months later, life got in the way and you forgot to communicate in a timely fashion after the PDF was sent. You never did get a chance to research the company to which you sent it. Oh, and since you were short on time, you sent a PDF that was not watermarked. A recent online search for your title shows your book for sale through an unrecognizable source in another country, one to which you did not send copies of your PDF. Now you are finding it impossible to track the company down to make further inquiries.

In my August 2017 article on participating in international trade shows, we explored some of the opportunities indie presses might find in the international rights marketplace. Now might be a good time to introduce you to some of the industry professionals who can guide you through the process of selling the foreign rights to your books. As with anything, there are informed choices to be made and no wrong answers. The key is to decide what will work best for you and your books.

Foreign rights can refer to a number of different things. The selling of translation rights occurs when a foreign publisher translates, publishes, and proceeds to sell your book in their country. Reprint rights means a foreign publisher buys the right to reprint your book in English and sell it in their country. Foreign distribution deals are similar to the arrangements you’d make with a distributor or wholesaler in the US. Co-publishing is when you organize simultaneous publication of a title in more than one languages/countries (often done for expensive, four-color art books).

Selling the rights to your titles can provide you with extra money. It can also provide you with international exposure and increase your brand awareness. But it is also extra work that should be handled professionally and with integrity. With this in mind, you may want to engage the services of an agent, subagent, agency, lawyer, or combination of all to help you navigate the rights landscape. Here are some pros and cons of each for your consideration.

Contracting with an agent, subagent, or rights agency to represent your books overseas is probably the most common route used by small publishers. If they decide your book is a good fit for their catalog, they will add you to the list of titles they currently handle. Often they specialize in particular categories, like fiction, children’s books, or spirituality.

The relationships they have with other international publishers is the primary reason to work with an agent or subagent. They communicate regularly with foreign buyers as well as meet with them at the important international fairs to introduce your books personally. Important items to ask them when you begin your research is about their client list, their success rate, and their terms of payment. An agent’s commission is typically 15 percent.

Agents also work with subagents or co-agents in various territories who have thorough knowledge of their local markets. In China, for instance, the publishing landscape is very complicated, and the barriers to entry can be difficult without a co-agent based there. Or, a French subagent may be able to present your title to many more prospects than your agent alone could. Working with a co-agent will raise the commission to 20 percent, split between the agent and co-agent. Some publishers and many countries will only work with rights professionals like agents and co-agents.

If you work with a publisher or distributor, they may have an experienced staff person handling foreign rights who will put this into your work agreement. They should have a presence at the international fairs booking appointments with their long-term relationships, know the opportunities in particular territories, have a good working knowledge of standard contracts, and use a professional royalty tracking and payment system.

Some opt for using a lawyer or other legal counsel when selling foreign rights. Of course, they will be focused on looking after your best interests, but they can also be very expensive and not versed in the nuances of foreign rights sales or particular territorial rights laws. A publishing attorney would be the best choice if you were to enlist outside legal help.

You may want to consider using a rights marketing company like IPR License (partnered with Copyright Clearance Center and the Frankfurt Book Fair) or PubMatch (partnered with Publishers Weekly) to help with discoverability. Both offer a dedicated rights platform online where buyers and sellers gather and domestic and international deals can be completed. For small presses, they provide “bolt on” services to sell, market, and manage your program for a small subscription or annual fee.

Naturally, some of you might enjoy taking advantage of a combination of the services noted above. It is important to remember for any of the choices to find out how often they pay, details of their royalty and commission structure, and what kind of communication you can expect. Also, make sure they know you and your books, and whether they require any exclusivity agreements.

And if you do decide to take the entrepreneurial route to rights sales, best to perform due diligence in the same manner you did for any part of the publishing process.


Victoria Sutherland is the publisher of Foreword Reviews magazine. You can email her at victoria@forewordreviews.com.

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