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How to Start Selling Foreign Rights

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Just as U.S. publishers are always looking for new books to publish, so too are foreign publishers. And sales of your books to these publishers can be an excellent source of subsidiary rights income.

The key is finding the publishers who are publishing in categories similar to yours. Then it’s easy to identify an editor in each targeted house who you can correspond with. This editor may express interest in your books after looking at your current catalog, a list of titles you’ve purchased for future publication, a finished book or books, or all of the above.

Begin the process of selling foreign rights by making a commitment to this source of sub-rights income because it isn’t cheap. You’ll have costs of mailing, copying, and probably some travel. This is a long-term project. Accept that. And oOnce you’ve made your commitment, remind yourself that measurements must bein addition to normal U.S. measures–in imperial or metric measures if they are to work abroad; think about putting them into your books.

Once you’ve made your commitment, remind yourself that measurements must be in imperial or metric measures if they are to work abroad and think about putting them into your books. Next, find a copy of International Literary Market Place(ILMP). published by R. R. Bowker. This is essentially the international equivalent of Literary Market Place, and it lists publishers by country. I suggest starting with the English-speaking publishers; once you understand the process and have gotten your feet wet, you should certainly move on to people who publish in other languages–almost all of them speak and correspond in English.

Review ILMP to find those publishers who could be interested in your subject area. Write to their editorial directors to say you’re beginning to explore rights sales and ask if they’re interested in looking at any of your titles. Enclose one of your catalogs and request one of theirs. If they express interest, send a “reading copy” of each selected book. If there is no interest, so be it. At least you’ve established a contact with someone you can correspond with; they may express interest eventually if you keep them informed about new titles far in advance and as the books develop.


Calculating Cost-Plus

Foreign rights deals are similar to book club deals in that foreign publishers could ask you for pricing as a run-on if you will be going back to press soon. Or they may inquire about duplicate film costs so they can run their own copies. And a foreign publisher that does its own print run will pay you an advance and a royalty, just as a book club will. Obviously, if you’re selling to a someone publishing in a foreign language, you’ll always have to quote an advance and royalty because there is no possibility of a run-on with your edition.

I recommend trying to get a royalty-inclusive sale, in which the royalty is included in the price you charge the publisher. That way, you don’t have to worry about how many books the foreign publisher sells; you will already have your money in hand. Of course, the foreign publisher will do its best to get a royalty-exclusive deal–in which the royalty component is paid separately from the manufacturing component–because it doesn’t want to pay you for books it might not sell. And therein lies the negotiation.

To quote a foreign run-on, you must know your own paper, printing, and binding costs. You want to quote that cost, plus the cost of any changes necessary for new copyright page information, new imprint information, a new jacket or cover if the publisher wants one, and other such minor changes. Quote the unit at what’s known as “cost plus,” that is, the actual cost plus a markup for your efforts. In most cases, publishers add 25% to their modified unit cost.

Since you won’t want to price yourself out of the market, ask the foreign publisher what it expects to charge for your book and divide that price by five or six to get close to what it can afford, royalty-exclusive. Then figure out the exchange rate to see if that works for you. Since many a publisher has ended up losing money because of exchange-rate fluctuations, always specify that you are to be paid in U.S. dollars.


An Example from England

Let’s take a hypothetical case to see how this works.

Suppose you have a base run-on price from your printer of $2.00 per book for paper, printing, and binding and your partner publisher wants to put its imprint on the title page, change the copyright page to reflect its needs, and do a new jacket. Let’s say this costs 25 cents per book, bringing your revised unit cost to $2.25. Adding 25% for administrative work ups the total by 56 cents, so the total unit you will quote to the publisher is $2.81, royalty-exclusive. That is, the partner publisher will also pay you a royalty on its retail price. The question then becomes: Will this unit price work for your partner?

Let’s say, in this same scenario, that you’re working with a British publisher who wants to publish the book in the U.K. for £8.99. Using the formula stated above, divide £8.99 by 5 to get £1.80. At an exchange rate of about $1.60 per British pound, this would come to about $2.88 per book–very close to what you wanted to charge. In this case, the deal would probably work.

You can see, however, that if the British publisher wanted to charge less than £8.99 for the book in its territory, the deal would not work. It is important, therefore, for you to have some knowledge of what its market is and how it works, who its competitors are, and how similar books are priced in other countries.


Meeting Them at the Fairs

To get to know the foreign markets and to meet with your counterparts in publishing houses throughout the world, it is ultimately important to attend some of the major conventions at which foreign rights are sold. There are four that you should consider:

Frankfurt. By far the largest international rights fair is held in Frankfurt, Germany each year in October. Treat your first visit to Frankfurt as exploratory. If you sell something, that’s terrific. However, your goals in Year One are to determine which publishers you can work with, to meet your counterparts at other houses, and to see what kinds of books work for foreign publishers and what books don’t.

London. Held in England in March of each year, the London Book Fair gives you direct access to most of the British publishers who sell books in the retail and academic markets. Again, if you go, try to set up appointments well in advance.

Bologna. The Bologna Book Fair, held in Italy each spring, focuses on illustrated children’s books.

BookExpo America. Originally the American Booksellers Association convention, BookExpo is America’s largest gathering of booksellers and foreign publishers. This year, it will take place in Los Angeles at the end of May. (See pages TK and TK for information related to PMA University, which is held just prior to BEA.)

Three months in advance of any book fair you plan to attend, write to the editorial directors you have targeted to ask if someone from the firm will be attending and to suggest a date, time, and place (usually at your stand or theirs) for a half-hour appointment.


When You Don’t Want to Travel

A second way to make your books available to foreign publishers at these conventions is to display them through PMA or another group that runs combined book exhibits. Obviously, this means forgoing the face-to-face contact that can be so productive, but it also means spending much less money.

And a third option is to hire an agent. If you have a consistent, ongoing publishing program, I recommend that you use agents for foreign-language markets. Why? Because agents keep up with local market trends and editorial and personnel changes overseas. They also are used to conducting business in foreign languages and dealing with currency-exchange issues. Most of these agents charge 10-15% of the sale price as their fee or, when a co-agent overseas is involved, 20%.

To find an agent or agents who can help you with foreign rights, browse through the section on agents in the latest Literary Market Place at your library. Then approach agents you target just as you would approach editorial directors at targeted publishing houses.


Earnings Estimates

How much can you expect to make on foreign rights? It depends, obviously, on the kind of book you have. If it’s an international best-seller, you can make millions. If it’s a small book with limited interest, perhaps $1,000 or more. The range is vast. Costs for exhibit space, personnel, and travel should be fairly apportioned against titles sold and deducted from any revenues received before you calculate your authors’ royalty share. And remember, whatever you earn is extra, incremental money and foreign rights income will grow as your reach expands.


Currently President of Cross River Publishing Consultants in Katonah, New York, Tom Woll has more than 25 years of senior-level publishing management experience at firms such as John Wiley & Sons, Rodale Press, and Storey Communications. This article is adapted from the new edition of his book Publishing for Profit: Successful Bottom-Line Management for Book Publishers” (ISBN 1-55652-462-5, $24.95), recently published by Chicago Review Press and distributed by IPG. “Publishing for Profit”is available in bookstores nationwide and through major online retailers or by calling 1-800/888-4741.

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