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How the Pandemic Has Forever Changed the Way We Sell Rights

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by Allison Olson, Hay House and Monica Meehan, DropCap —

Allison Olson

The way we conduct business and showcase titles to prospective buyers must not only be reinvented but revolutionized for a more modernized future.

For those unfamiliar to it, the world of translation rights can be mysterious, even daunting—the job of a small, independent department that somehow ticks along with agents attending book fairs and speaking to people around the world. As with film agents selling original scripts, book rights sell their intellectual property to different territories worldwide, and the result can be more rewarding and lucrative than you imagine.

Monica Meehan

When the pandemic struck, everyone became a bit more cognizant, or perhaps curious, about what selling rights entails. It also shed light on what happens when travel is halted and untapped revenue for fantastic properties can be exploited in a bigger way without facing customers as often as we once did. There will be in-person international book fairs again, just as we can almost imagine a day when meeting small talk resumes to asking colleagues when they arrived rather than discussing the status of the pandemic in their respective countries. We do, however, realize that while book sales have soared and our industry has thankfully remained buoyant, the way we conduct business and showcase titles to prospective buyers must not only be reinvented but revolutionized for a more modernized future.

Opportunities Abound

Rights can be an untapped revenue stream that creates a domino effect of opportunities and increasing visibility for authors in various innovative ways. For example, we’ve found that:

  • The life cycle of a book in rights is often longer than its domestic sales cycle. The backlist is the golden egg in rights, as other publishers treasure older titles with a proven record or a topic that is trending at different times in other parts of the world.
  • Foreign language audio rights are a growing revenue stream.
  • Author/publisher loyalty increases. If a book does well, the foreign buyer will often license subsequent titles from the same publisher. Not a shoe-in, but a good way to keep interest engaged.
  • Many small- and medium-sized publishers don’t realize the potential their front and backlists have for foreign rights potential.
  • Prior to the aid of a foreign rights agent, a publisher who had been exhibiting at international book fairs for many years without success will often find that when signing with an agency, their networks are much stronger and wider reaching with teams dedicated to language markets they have worked in for many years.
  • Rights deals are not only conducted with traditional publishers. A big-box retailer, for example, can purchase rights to a business book as training material for their employees or as a special sale to their clients.

Digital Pivot

COVID-19 sped up the adoption of technology-centric ways to market and monetize rights. While in-person book fairs are essential for building and strengthening business relationships, companies realized that to sustain and grow rights sales when the world was closed for the types of one-on-one selling rights agents have become accustomed to, they would have to adapt. Virtual book fairs and Zoom pitches soon became commonplace.

For example, Frankfurt Rights is Frankfurter Buchmesse’s new platform for licensing. Anyone seeking to buy rights can sign up, browse the platform, contact licensors, and start transactions.

At our company, we are always asking ourselves how we can make it easier for prospective buyers to view titles more effectively, at any time, based on their new remote or flexible schedules. How can we exhibit our publisher clients’ strongest titles without having editors and agents around the world skim hundreds of rights guides and catalogues? In other words, how can we personalize their experience to make their work a bit easier, more visually appealing, and even entertaining? We developed a full end-to-end platform that includes virtual book fair booths that we often run in conjunction with an international book fair like Frankfurt.

The Relationship Aspect

A post-pandemic world has taught us that you can no longer compartmentalize roles or responsibilities. Though we are physically further apart from our colleagues than ever before, it has become essential to work as a true team—to be seen more equally rather than hierarchically. Your hires do not need to be Ivy League coders or influencers, but it is important to consider teammates who will have creativity, flexibility, and the interest in embracing technology in conjunction with their integral roles in rights, marketing, sales, and content. A 2020 Gallup poll shows that in America in 2015, 31 percent worked remotely and, by 2026, it is predicted that this number will jump to 60 percent.

Previously, the issue of trust was a factor. The pandemic has proven that we can work as effectively across various time zones if the choices we make in staffing are the right ones, inside and outside our organizations. We all know the Big Five—now four with the Simon & Schuster/Penguin Random House merger—have large rights departments with many dedicated agents, but will the mid-size to smaller publishers realize that an in-house rights team is either not available or not necessary to their success? Hiring boutique agencies who are available as easily as if they are sharing an office next door may well be the desired approach of the near future.

Publishing is an industry largely built on personal relationships, networks, and stories to tell and sell. The value of these relationships has never been more apparent while face-to-face meetings escaped us in the last two years. But by integrating technology and allowing a good system of your choosing to be your best tool, networking can be even stronger. The tool starts the conversation, and our relationships continue them.

Allison Olson’s career in the rights industry spans over 25 years. Prior to founding DropCap, Allison owned Letter Soup, an independent rights agency that started with one small publishing client and grew to the translation of over 6,000 individual books into over 180 languages. Seeing the need for more efficient, tech-based solutions in the rights industry, Allison co-founded DropCap in 2018.

After her tenure as rights director at Hay House for 10 years, Monica Meehan brings her foreign rights expertise to DropCap as the vice president of business development. She’s worked in Toronto, London, and New York, and has a broad range of contacts worldwide. She, along with DropCap Co-Founder Allison Olson, personally negotiates every rights deal made on behalf of clients.

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