It's book fair time. Bologna next week, and London next month. Those are the only book fairs I go to, but there are others, of course (and I haven't been to Bologna since they moved it out of the school holidays and so made attending impossible). I'm well aware of the view that authors going to a book fair is like taking pigs for a trip round an abattoir, but I'm not squeamish.Book fairs are not about writers, though. They're about rights. I know, the words sound the same - "I'm off to Bologna to buy some rights"/"I'm off to Bologna to buy some write[r]s". It's easy to see how writers got to think they are somehow involved.
Book fairs are about selling foreign rights. That means: you have sold your book to a publisher in your own country, and now someone is going to sell it to a publisher in another country. Since I'm in the UK, let's assume you've sold your book to a UK publisher, but it works in much the same way anywhere. Now it gets a bit complicated. Your contract might have sold the publisher rights in all languages and formats in the known and unknown universe. Or you might have sold only the UK/English language rights. In the first case, the publisher owns the foreign rights. In the second case, you do. Of course, if you sold the copyright in a flat-fee deal, you don't have the foreign rights even if they were not mentioned in the contract. (Actually, I'm going to start buying up Martian rights. And maybe exoplanetary rights. No one's doing that. And I'll retain those in all future contracts.)
So what are foreign rights? Put simply, the right to sell your book in foreign places. Not sell as in bookshops, but sell as in republish (and then, we hope, sell in bookshops). Obviously, foreign rights often involve translating the book into a foreign language. Not many people in the Ukraine are going to read your book in English, but if you sell Ukranian rights and the book is translated into Ukranian, you might find yourself a lovely new market.
If your publisher handles the foreign rights for your book, your contract will tell you what share you get of any sales. Let's imagine my vampire publisher sells the rights in Vampire Dawn to the Ukraine (I have no idea whether they are planning to - this is just hypothetical. Hello, any Ukranian publishers.) They will seek out, by whatever means, a Ukranian publisher interested in buying in a series of short books about vampires. This is what they do at book fairs. Here we hope either the Ukranians speak good English or they have a good translator, as we don't want them buying what they think is a series of books about short vampires. The publisher says, "OK, you can have the vampires for £20,000." I get a proportion of that money - I can't remember what proportion, but probably about 40%, which would be £8,000. So foreign rights = money for nothing. The author has to do NOTHING to get money for foreign rights. Hooray!
If your publisher doesn't handle the foreign rights, your agent should be selling foreign rights. And that's what they do at book fairs. They look for Ukranians interested in short vampires, or whatever. Now, there's clearly an advantage to retaining the foreign rights, isn't there? If your publisher sells the foreign rights for £20,000 and you get £8,000, there's still £12,000 for the publisher. But if your agent sells foreign rights for £20,000 and you pay the agent 20% + VAT (it's often 20% for foreign), you get about £15,000. Hooray! Foreign rights = even more money for nothing! Of course, for your agent it's also best if you have retained foreign rights. If they sell your rights to the Ukranian vampire-hunter, they get £3,000. If the publisher sells the rights, the agent gets 15% of your £8,000 (£1,200).
If your publisher doesn't handle foreign rights and you don't have an agent, guess who gets to sell the foreign rights? Yes, you. That's when you might want to go to a book fair with your selling hat on. NOT to interest some random editor in your latest unpublished tale about ponies or flying bunnies or bone-sucking monsters. Editors aren't even there, usually.
I have no experience of selling foreign rights, but here's an encouraging story about a guy who - obviously a selling genius - managed to sell foreign rights to something he calls a spiritual allegory about bees for $40,000. I know, I know - but people buy pot noodles and jumpers for their dogs. There's no accounting for what can be sold. If you sell your own foreign rights, you don't have to pay anyone else anything. So assuming you've tracked down that Ukranian publisher and secured £20,000, you get to keep all of it. You don't even have to pay VAT as it's outside the EU (isn't it? I think it is, but the EU keeps growing). Hooray. Ish. Foreign rights = money for something, which could be considerable effort.
Let's sum up the maths. Look away if you don't like numbers.
We will assume Ukranian rights are sold for £20,000.
Publisher sells rights, your share is 40%
If you have an agent, you get: 40% of £20,000 LESS 20% agent commission + VAT
If you don't have an agent, you get 40% of £20,000
= £ 8,000
Agent sells rights, you pay 20% commission
You get: £20,000 LESS 20% agent commission + VAT
You sell rights
You get: all of it
If, like me, you would rather gouge out your eyes with a plastic spoon than talk to a Ukranian rights buyer, the last option isn't going to happen. But having an agent who handles foreign rights is definitely a good idea - as long as they are good at it. It's not quite the no-brainer it appears to be, though. You need to take account of (a) how likely each potential seller is to sell the rights at all and (b) how much they are likely to get.
Your publisher is trying to sell lots of foreign rights. They can bundle things, do deals that involve more than one author, and give away lollipops (or champagne, or at least prosecco) on their stand. If they are good at selling rights, they might (a) succeed and (b) get a good deal. But they might also be less fussed about your particular books/deal as they have others to work with.
Your agent might or might not have a department for handling foreign rights (that's an advantage of a big agency), or links with agents overseas, or expertise in selling foreign rights. That's something you should look at when choosing an agent. They might stand less or more chance of selling the foreign rights than your publisher.
You, frankly, stand less chance of selling the rights yourself than either a publisher or agent. There are exceptions - you might be a real sales whizz and cut a wonderful deal. Good for you. But imagine you are the rights buyer of Vampire Press (Ukraine) and you can either fix a meeting with Ms Professional Publisher or Ms Top-Shot Agent or Ms Author. You have one slot left in your diary. Which will you go for? Either of the first two. Simply because if either of them shows you a series about short vampires and you don't like it, you can ask what else they have and they will have something else so your slot was not wasted. If you opt for the author and don't like the vampires, all you'll get is a lot of moaning and tears. And no lollipop/prosecco.
As an author, you are also less likely to sell the rights for as much as your publisher or agent could. Imagine thatt you sell the rights for £10,000 - you're still better off than you would be if your publisher sold the rights, but less well off than if your agent sold them. And I know plenty of authors would sell their foreign rights for a mess of pottage (or a lollipop and a glass of prosecco) just because they would be so delighted to have a deal. Don't - all right? Just don't. I'll buy you a lollipop and a glass of prosecco - save your rights.
During the interregnum, or interagentum, after I had left one agent and not signed with my current agent, I let publishers buy all foreign rights. I did this because I had no intention at all of hawking foreign rights around anywhere. I am not a salesperson. I am not good at it, and I can't be bothered. I would rather write another book. Now my secret agent Q is a bit cross about that. I hope I don't have another interagentum, but if I do I'll remember to hold on to foreign rights so that any future agent has something to sell at book fairs. It's a useful thing to consider if you are currently unagented but looking for an agent - if you can offer foreign rights to some successful books along with your current work, that might make you a more appealing prospect. Please, if any agents disagree, say so!
Selling foreign rights in a book already published is one thing. Looking for a co-edition partner is another. (Oh, I should have done co-edition under C. Oops. A co-edition is when the book is published in another language/territory at the same time by a second publisher.) Publishers often need a co-edition deal before they can afford to go ahead with a book, especially if it is in full colour and therefore expensive to produce. And that's where I have to wave and step away from the screen, as three of my potential contracts at the moment are hanging on co-edition deals. I'm off to do samples for the London Book Fair so that foreign publishers flock to sign up and those books go ahead. Any publishers interested in space? philosophy? retellings? Head to LBF, form an orderly queue, I'll tell you the stand numbers later. Lollipops and prosecco will be on offer.