Foreign Rights Deals - How American Books are Published Internationally

I just got my second question this week from about foreign rights sales. The first was from a U.S. based publisher who'd been approached by a foreign publisher who wanted to license a book, the second was from a foreign publisher interested in acquiring multiple U.S. titles for translation. I'm neither a lawyer nor a particularly good negotiator, but I've heard from publishers and authors from all over the world on this subject, so I'll regurgitate a little here.

There are two basic kinds of foreign rights sales: those where the acquirer will translate the work into another language (or languages) and those where the foreign publisher will provide marketing and distribution for an English title in a country where the original publisher has no facilities to do so. In both cases, the publisher selling the rights must be very specific as to what rights are being sold, ie, what languages, what regions of the world, and whether the rights extend beyond a printed book. U.S. publishers should be especially wary of granting electronic rights to English works for fear they will have legally conceded rights for Internet publication, which of course, knows no borders. Some deals may include time limitations as well.

There are also two basic fee models for licensing the rights; a one time payment or a royalty (any royalty deals should include an advance payment against expected sales). In both cases, the U.S. publisher would be wise to get the money before e-mailing the file off into the blue, because it may be the last friendly contact they ever have with the foreign publisher. Since doing this intelligently requires the services of a lawyer or an agent with strong foreign rights experience, it's not generally a good proposition for self-publishers, who will spend more on making the deal than they can hope to earn back on a single title. If you are a self-publisher who feels you have a foreign rights offer you can't turn down, but you refuse to spend money on professional help, at least read up on the subject (Kirsch, Poynter) and consider using a boilerplate contract from their books.

I've received several offers over the years to publish translations of my self-published books, but due to the relatively low potential for profit, I've never had a reason to move forward with it. However, I've authored a few books for trade publishers that have had foreign rights deals, in languages including: Spanish, Chinese, Greek, Arabic, Polish and Russian. The largest of these deals brought the publisher $2000 for an outright sale of print rights, but the average was actually less than $1000. One deal, Spanish, involved a royalty amounting to about $0.50 per copy. A large publisher or a small publisher with an attractive backlist can amortize the legal and accounting costs and headaches for foreign sales over a large number of titles, but it's a dicey business decision for a small publisher to get involved, unless they see foreign sales as strategic part of their future.

It really comes down to a question of your business model, especially your distribution network. I think foreign rights sales for small publishers are probably a better gamble when there's no translation involved, just expansion into another English market that you aren't set up to serve. For one thing, there won't be any questions of the quality of the translation or any additional liability for errors, and in some cases, you may be able to negotiate a deal where the foreign publisher simply resells books you have printed. However, I worry even more about dotting the "i's" and crossing the "t's" in the legal agreement for English rights sales, lest they end up back in a market you sell in (i.e., the U.S.) competing with your books, or even selling a lower quality version of the same title. Keep in mind that legal agreements aren't about the plain meaning of the words, if you aren't trained in the field, you don't know what you're doing. You could sign a perfectly good boilerplate agreement with a publisher in France or Ukraine, only to find that the French agreement gives them the right to sell throughout Europe under E.U. law or the Ukrainian deal gives them access to the whole of the former U.S.S.R under their law. I don't know this to be the case, it's just an example of a potential pitfall.

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