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Selling Foreign Book Rights

by D. J. Herda

There are several reasons to sell foreign, or translation, rights of your book into other languages.  For one, more people will read your book.  For another, your readership will be more global.  For yet another, you’ll reap more monetary rewards, generate more publicity, and reap more monetary rewards.  (In book publishing, success equals success.)

When you write a book, you create a piece of property called a Work.  The Work may be published in several different formats (editions), including hardcover, softcover (paperback), audiotape, eBook, magazine condensation, newspaper serialization, movie, translation, etc. These different formats are called “subsidiary,” and the right to produce the Work in these formats is called “subsidiary rights.”

Unfortunately, many English-language publishers today don’t sell foreign rights because they don’t take the time to let international publishers know that their books even exist.

Publishers in English-speaking countries are fortunate.  English is the official language of the most influential disciplines in the world: business, aviation, the Internet, diplomacy, medicine, and science.  The worldwide market for original English-language books is large and growing larger every day.  More people speak English as a second language (and I’m not talking only about residents of the Bronx!) than any other language in the world.  Nevertheless, given a choice, most people would prefer reading a book in their native tongue.

That’s why English-language publishers sell foreign-language rights to publishers in other countries.  Foreign publishers translate, design, typeset, and print the book before plugging it into their distribution pipeline.  In short, they do everything a writer of a Work could want short of actually creating it.

But what if your book is self-published?  What if you don't yet have any publisher at all?  The good news is that you can still pursue foreign rights sales for your English-language book.

Observing the Legal Issues
From a copyright standpoint, U.S.-copyrighted books require a separate copyright for translated works.  But remember that foreign copyrights are most likely subject to the laws of the foreign country involved and be different than United States copyrights.  In order to protect your work globally, you should obtain a copy of the foreign copyright and have it reviewed by a U.S. copyright attorney.

Once that's done, the majority of your most difficult work is over.  The foreign publisher should be responsible for paying the translator his or her royalty directly, above and beyond the royalty you receive.  This should be spelled out in any foreign-rights contract you negotiate.

Other issues that should be covered in the sub-publishing agreement are:

  • Definition of the specific language and territory grants for your book.  For example, if the rights are for Russian language publication in Russia only, the contract should state that fact specifically.
  • Duration of the license (usually for seven years, although the time may be negotiable).
  • Nature of the edition, whether hardcover or paperback, and a fixed date of foreign publication.
  • Reserves against returns.
  • Frequency of accountings.
  • Explanation of which party bears the cost of currency conversion and fluctuations.
  • Design and creative control, including approval rights to the translation if appropriate.

Resolving the Money Issues
In general, the largest foreign-language royalty advances are usually obtained from Japanese, German, and Spanish publishers.  The typical advance for a run-of-list title is usually between $1,500 to $8,000 (hey, nobody said you were going to get rich from this!), but the specific advance varies.  The size of the advance can be determined by taking into consideration (1) the size of the potential market, (2) the selling price of the book, (3) the estimated first printing in the foreign language, and (4) the royalty rate.

The royalty rate, whether on retail list price or on money received, usually varies on a country-by-country basis.  Usually, it averages between 6 - 10% for the first printing.  That rate might also depend upon the subject matter of the translated title, the difficulty and cost of preparing the translation for the foreign edition, and any other costs that may be incurred by the publisher, such as the cost of providing illustrations and various other production costs.  Royalty rates are often increased on second and third printings of the translated work, since the publisher presumably has recouped his out-of-pocket expenses on the first printing.

At some time during the early stages of negotiating a foreign-rights contract, the foreign publisher should provide you with a proposed royalty advance and royalty rate.  That will allow you to do the following:

  • Develop an estimate for the number of copies likely to be sold.
  • Obtain from the publisher the minimum retail selling price of the book in their territory.
  • Receive a commitment from the foreign publisher for a first printing.
  • Calculate the estimated royalty that you will receive if the first printing is completely sold out.
  • Negotiate a royalty advance that is as high a percentage as possible based upon the royalty compensation you would receive if the first printing does sell out (usually between 33% and 50%).

Here's an example to help you determine that:

Retail Selling Price is $10.00.
First Printing is 5,000 copies.
Royalty Rate on First Printing is 7% of the Retail Selling Price.
Royalty Earned on First Printing is $50,000 @ 7% or $3,500.
Advance @ 50% of Royalty Earned is $1,750.

Some additional contract issues that should be agreed upon include these:

  • Exclusivity vs. non-exclusivity.  It is highly unlikely that you will be able to negotiate a non-exclusive agreement for the foreign publisher's primary territory.  But the issue of non-exclusivity becomes important for the "open territory,” of that territory not covered by the publisher.
  • The term of the agreement.  This is usually between five and twelve years with seven years being the most common period of time.
  • Payment in United States dollars.
  • The ability for the English Language Publisher to use or license the foreign language translation prepared by the foreign publisher.  This consideration is becoming more important when worldwide language rights or electronic book publishing rights have not been granted to the foreign publisher.

Finally, remember that, unless you have a second home and dual citizenship in the country in which the foreign publisher resides, you need to assume the worst and take precautions against contractual disaster.  Once the book is in the hands of the foreign publisher, you run the risk of the publisher proceeding to publish the work even without an agreement in place and without paying you your advance.  Therefore, the English Language Publisher should never allow the foreign publisher to have the book until all agreements are signed and advances are paid.

Finding a Foreign Publisher
To find publishers of English-language books willing to buy and translate books for sale in a foreign country, contact the publishers’ associations in major language groups, principally Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Japan.  See International Literary Marketplace or visit their exhibits at book fairs.  Ask them to recommend member publishers that specialize in the same subject matter or genre as your book.

Match your book to the international publisher and contact that publisher.  With a little hard work, a lot of diligence, and just a bit of luck, you too could be reaping the benefits of additional income from your books.


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