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Foreign Rights: What You Can Expect from International Trade Shows

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by Victoria Sutherland, Publisher, Foreword Reviews magazine —

Watch Joshua Robertson’s video recap of this article!

Victoria Sutherland

Now that the domestic trade show season is behind us, our thoughts turn to the international marketplace and how to best utilize our presence at book fairs from late summer 2017 to late spring 2018—Beijing, Frankfurt, Shanghai, Bologna, and London.

In truth, the contrast between North America’s BookExpo and American Library Association Annual Conference and the Asian and European events is quite significant. Showcasing your titles at the domestic shows is primarily an opportunity to get your books in front of US booksellers and librarians, alongside new titles from the majority of North American book publishers. The international trade shows are more focused on selling the rights of your titles to overseas publishers.

What does this mean, exactly?

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. Reprints means a foreign publisher buys the rights to reprint your book in English and sell it in their country. Foreign distribution deals are similar to the arrangements you would make with a distributor or wholesaler in the US. Co-publishing is when you organize simultaneous publication of a title in several languages/countries (often done for expensive four-color art books).

Let me start with an example of translation rights. Nearly two years ago, during a meeting at Foreword Reviews‘ stand in Beijing, one of my Chinese rights colleagues expressed interest in a memoir we had on display. Part of my brief presentation of this book during our 30-minute appointment included a discussion on general sales numbers, how active the author was on social media, the awards the book had won, and the release of a major motion picture based on the story for which the author was a consultant.

When we returned home, we provided watermarked PDFs of the book to the co-agent to share with interested Chinese publishers. Watermarking your PDF samples is a deterrent to piracy. Your book designer can accommodate your request to do this very simply.

About a month later, an offer was made on this title via e-mail. The Chinese publisher committed to translating the book, printing 5,000 copies for the first run, pricing the book at 38RMB (or $6) and paying an advance of $3,000, with 7 percent royalties on the first 10,000 copies sold, and 8 percent after that. As the publisher’s agent, I wrote up the contract, sent three signed copies to China for counter-signing, and when the advance check was deposited, we delivered the interior files and cover via Dropbox. Part of our terms included having the book published within 18 months, and we expect our finished copies in the mail any day.

Now, that kind of money is certainly not going to float to every publishing company. I encourage small publishers to look at foreign rights sales as “gravy” cash flow. But more established independent publishers with an extensive backlist build a significant portion of their business around rights sales, even going so far as selling the foreign rights to trusted agents before books are even published in the US.

IBPA staff take meetings with rights agents in the IBPA cooperative booth at the 2016 Frankfurt Book Fair.

Where to Begin

If you can afford to take time away from your office to travel to foreign rights shows, and rent a stand to showcase your books, you may happen upon someone walking by who expresses interest in some of your titles. But it can also lead to major disappointment: watching agents run by your booth to their next appointment if you are not more prepared with advance meetings.

I usually recommend that newbies start by sending their books with a “collective” stand to test the waters and begin to develop a contact list. For an affordable single title fee, collectives showcase books from dozens of individual publishers and sort the books by genre/category on their display shelves. This makes it easy for the scheduled appointments and passersby to shop for titles of interest to them.

Experienced booth personnel will know enough about your title to guide return clients and new prospects to your book, share a sell sheet you provide, and collect contact details to pass along to you when they return from the fair. Also, collectives often have an online catalog where your metadata will live on long after the show and turn up in Google searches for your book’s subject matter.

If you can send your book with a collective and attend the show (without the responsibilities of manning a stand), you’re ideally situated to walk the fair and meet foreign publishers putting out similar-style books, but who can’t leave their stands. Most of them are open to setting up appointments on the second or third day of the fair when things begin to slow down.

Other important attendees at the fairs—besides rights agents—are TV/film producers, licensing agents, teachers and professors, librarians and booksellers, and large publishers from the US looking for smaller publishers to incorporate into their list.

What Kinds of Books Do Well?

This is a common question and still so difficult to answer even after more than 20 years of attending four to five international shows annually. Of course, topping the list is bestselling fiction from well-known authors, but these books are unusual from indie presses. But that’s OK, because rights agents understand there is quality to be found at the smaller houses, at more affordable prices. Of particular interest are award winners, books in a series, topics with international appeal, middle grade and young adult fiction, children’s picture books, business, self-help, and spirituality books (also, authors who often speak publicly and have good social media presence).

Over the years, I’ve learned not to make any judgments about the quality of a cover design or subject matter. Some of our high-interest books included a not-so-sexy title on E. coli bacteria and a children’s picture book featuring stick figures drawn by kids.

Define Your Goals

Finally, as you begin to imagine your books being published around the world, it’s important to carefully consider your “why” and keep your expectations in check. Selling your rights can provide you with extra money; it can also provide you with international exposure. Additionally, it can help increase your brand awareness. But it is also extra work that should be handled professionally and with integrity. With all of 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.

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

Listen to IBPA member Joshua Robertson recap this article…. Thanks, Joshua!

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