The Business Rusch: Selling Books Elsewhere
For the past week, I have stared at an e-mail that I printed out nearly two years ago. I flagged the e-mail and put it in the back of my 2011 paper calendar, and moved the printout with each new calendar.
The e-mail is from my former French mystery editor. We exchanged e-mails as she left my French publisher for a new publisher, and she expressed in continuing the Smokey Dalton series in its successful French translations at her new company. I told her I would let her know when I have finished a new Smokey Dalton novel.
I initially set the e-mail aside because I knew I wouldn’t write the next Smokey book for a while. As I said in a post two weeks ago, I wanted to publish the book when I knew that it would receive better treatment than the series had ever received from its first publisher. It has taken time to get here, but as I mentioned in that post, the new Smokey Dalton book, Street Justice already has a better cover than any that came before, will be in all e-bookstores, will have a trade edition that will get distributed to major retailers, and will have a marvelous audio edition.
In fact, last week, I spoke to the marketing team at Audible, who have already got more things planned for the audio edition than had happened with this Edgar- and Shamus-award nominated series from its original publisher. I’m surprised and pleased by all of this; the Audible promotions are in addition to all of WMG Publishing’s considerable plans for the new book and the new series.
But this e-mail from my former French editor has me stumped. Not because I doubt her sincerity; I don’t. My French publishers treated the Smokey Dalton series in translation much better than my American publishers ever did. I love the French editions. They had gorgeous covers, and lots of publisher support.
It’s just that things have changed so much in the past two years, and yet they haven’t changed at all.
I’ll try to explain. First, I have some work to do. Aside from doing some research to see if this editor is still at her “new” publishing house, I also need to double-check my French contracts to make sure the old house doesn’t have an option on the next book. Let’s assume success: She’s still there, and both publishers want the new book. I have an auction to handle on my own (oh, how I will suffer) and eventually I will have an edition in the French language.
None of the previous Smokey books are in e-versions in French. Very few of my books in translation have e-book editions. Like most other countries, France is about a year or two behind the US in the e-book revolution. There are also different legal challenges in that country than there are here. (And I’m not going into all of them, because I’m only aware of some of them.)
But that’s not where my hesitation in contacting my former editor comes from.
My hesitation comes from a brand-new dream, one that I really didn’t have two years ago.
Eventually, I would like to control my own foreign editions. A French version of my novels is easier for me to do than, say, a Greek version of my novels because I know most of my French translators already. I know some wonderful French freelance editors who could copy edit and proof and help design the perfect French dust jacket.
I could do a French edition on my own—eventually.
But I’m not ready to do so now, and I’m not sure when I will be. I also know that when I negotiate foreign contracts without an agent, I get better terms for my books—including a limitation on the contract. Agents hate contract term limits, because the contract keeps the agent on board as well as the publisher. Most agent-negotiated foreign contracts that I’ve signed look suspiciously like American contracts, with the nasty icky rights clauses and the impossible reversions.
The foreign contracts I’ve negotiated myself don’t have the icky rights clauses, and they have a time limit. The rights licensed in the contract will return to me after a certain number of years, and if the book is still selling well, then the publisher and I have the right to renew the contract on equal or better terms.
I don’t have that clause in any of my agent-negotiated foreign contracts, yet it exists in all of the contracts I’ve negotiated myself.
So I know I can get a term-limited contract from a French publisher, should a French publisher be interested, and by the time that contract expires, I might be ready to publish a French edition on my own.
No matter what I decide, I will have work ahead of me. Either I must research the French editors/publishers, and examine my contracts, or I will eventually need to hire a translator on my own, along with a good proofer and do my own French edition. Even if I decide to go with a traditional French publisher with a good term-limited contract, I will still have work ahead. I’ll have to monitor the rights reversions, and I will face this decision in the future.
The editor’s letter keeps rising to the top of my desk while other things have happened. One of my foreign publishers just paid great royalties on a contract that I negotiated. I have an agent-negotiated contract with the same publisher, through an agency that I fired, and the monies are supposed to come directly to me. That hasn’t happened yet, because no one will inform the Italian agent who has co-partnered with my former US agent. That Italian agent ignores me. So, I have yet to receive a notification that there is a royalty statement, let alone any possible payment due, even though I now know that I should have seen that royalty statement weeks ago.
I have had no troubles collecting foreign royalty payments since I started doing the work myself. In fact, I’m actually making royalty money from foreign publishers for the first time.
Which should tip me toward contacting my former French editor, right?
And it does. It truly does. Only I’m beginning to see translation rights as one large package, one I’m not willing to address yet.
Perhaps one reason I’m not willing to address it is this: I’m selling books in France as well as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Croatia, Greece, Canada, Germany, Spain, Finland, Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, India, Brazil, and Japan. Granted, these books are all being sold in English to English readers in those countries, but for the first time in my career, my work is available in almost 200 countries. That doesn’t mean someone has ordered my work in each of those 200 countries, but it means that someone could if she wanted to.
And that’s not just e-books. Trade papers are available in many countries as well and the number is growing all the time. So are the audio books.
The problem I have now isn’t that I’m failing to reach readers in foreign countries; it’s that I’m failing to reach readers who want to read in their native language.
I’m still missing readers who want to buy my work. I’m just not missing as many of them.
A lot of writers are still missing those worldwide English language readers. Those writers have older traditional book contracts, and those contracts are broken apart by territory. The writer might have sold First North American rights, which means her book will only be available in the US and Canada. She might also have sold foreign language rights in a variety of countries, as I have done, but until recently she has no way to see if the books are even available in those countries. (I love the internet!)
Five years ago, a savvy writer only sold First North American. Then publishers got smart, and would demand Worldwide English Language rights, claiming that everything else was a deal-breaker. For a while, I thought World English was okay, because there really was no easy way for a writer in the United States to publish an English language book in Germany.
Now there is. Writers I know who have traditional book contracts that only include First North American rights are indie-publishing their English-language titles in other countries. I will be doing so with some of my titles that are US only within the next year. The ability to do this did not exist a year ago.
So it makes rights sales even dicier than they have been in the recent past. Which means there are several factors a writer has to keep in mind as she’s dealing with them.
First, if she sells World English Rights to her traditional publisher, will that publisher make the book available in all possible countries? A lot of writers are complaining to me about their traditional publisher refusing to publish books in countries outside the US even though the publisher has the right to do so.
Nowadays, not having at least an English-language version of a new book available for a worldwide audience pisses off readers, and when a reader gets angry, she blames the writer, not the publisher.
Secondly, is the writer’s agent/publisher trustworthy? I know, I know. A lot of you people seem to believe that these big agencies and corporations won’t screw you over. I would applaud the naiveté if it weren’t so harmful to your business. Historically foreign rights have been the place where sticky fingers find the most traction.
Let’s deal with an agency first. A US agent will usually partner with a foreign agent in a particular country to sell a book in that country. A lot of employees touch the writer’s money before it ever crosses the writer’s desk. The foreign publisher must send out royalty statements and checks to the proper foreign agent. Then the foreign agent must process the check and send it to the US agent, who then sends the money to the writer.
Usually, secretaries and bookkeepers are the ones who actually handle the funds. And think about this:
The writer never knows the check is coming. Oh, she might have an idea if she’s going to get an advance on her German sale. But what if that book earned out? What if royalties are due? The writer has no idea when those royalties are paid and how long it will take for those royalties to reach her.
Royalty money from a traditional foreign publisher, sold through a traditional agent, is always treated as manna from heaven by the writer, falling out of the mail at surprising times.
Rare are the writers who track their foreign sales and their foreign royalties.
So if the bookkeeper in the foreign rights agent’s office is going to get evicted from his apartment if he fails to pay the rent, the bookkeeper might think: Who will miss that 500 Euro payment to Writer A? Of course, the bookkeeper assures himself, he will make up the funds later. All he needs to do is disappear the paperwork for a month or two or fifteen or seven years or just forget it even exists.
Think this doesn’t happen? It’s happened to me—and I’ve caught it—at least five times. Not to mention the still-active US agent who slid all foreign royalty monies into his own pocket and who used to get sued for doing that from his former clients on a regular basis. The clients, who would settle out of court, had to sign a confidentiality agreement so that they would never rat on this embezzling agent.
It’s even easier for sticky fingers to find a place to lift money in a traditional publishing house. The publisher sells the foreign rights and splits those sales 50/50 with the author.
Or should split them 50/50 with the author. Lately, I’ve seen contracts which pays the author 25% of net receipts from the foreign sale, minus commissions, taxes, and any other applicable expenses. Commissions aren’t defined, taxes aren’t defined, and neither are those applicable expenses. In other words, the writer might not be entitled to a penny under that particular deal.
But let’s just assume the 50/50 split. The publisher makes the sale to a foreign publisher. Then the US publisher is supposed to report that sale on the next royalty statement, whatever that means. I know of several writers who have sold books in translation and didn’t see a dime of that money until two years after publication—and that dime was the advance. The only reason some of these authors got paid was because they had learned about the foreign sale from English-speaking fans in the foreign country contacting them on social media.
And then, mysteriously, after the author asked about it, the money owed for the advance would finally show up in the royalty statement. Would foreign royalties ever show up? No. Where did they get stopped? Did the foreign publisher fail to send out the royalties? Did the US publisher work with a foreign agent who had our hapless bookkeeper? Did some flunky in the US publisher’s royalty department “forget” to add some royalty payments into a statement? Did the paperwork ever arrive at the US publisher’s office? Did it get to the right department? Did the check just go into a general fund to be dealt with later?
Most writers have no clue this is happening. Most writers have no right to a clue, because the contracts they sign do not give them the right to audit their publisher.
If you don’t have a clause in your contract allowing you to audit your publisher’s books then, generally speaking, you must trust what the publisher reports. Because the publisher is a legal entity with rights, just like you have. And you can’t any more audit your publisher than you can audit your next door neighbor, even if your neighbor owes you $100 from that personal loan you gave him two years ago.
Got that? You need an audit clause, at the very least.
Which brings us to the third item in our list of things to keep in mind when considering foreign rights deals.
It has become a small world. This blog has readers from all over the world. Half of the readers who come to the blog on Thursday as appointment reading do so in the middle of my night—the beginning of their day—in England, France, Germany, and so on. Then the Americans and Canadians show up, along with the Australians who arrive on a different day but at the same time (I love that) not to mention the Japanese and the folks in Greece and India and Africa.
If I mention that a book is out now and it’s not available to a worldwide English speaking audience, I get e-mails from readers all over the world asking when they’ll be able to get copies. I want them to get copies. I want them to be able to read the book if they’re interested—just like I’m sure you do with your readers.
So overseas sales are dicey and getting dicier by the minute. And they’re just one more thing a writer needs to think about as she thinks about what she wants from her career.
Traditional publishers are just beginning to wake up to the power of the overseas markets. According to the Association of American Publishers, e-book revenue for American trade publishers increased 63% in 2012, to $121 million, with more growth expected in 2013. As I mentioned above, most countries are behind the US on the e-book curve, but those countries are working hard to catch up.
For the moment, English has become the language of business worldwide. (There is talk that Mandarin may take over; I’ll leave that to scholars to figure out.)
On June 11, PRI’s The World ran a fascinating story about the way English is used in education. The story focused on pushback in Italy about the way that English is being used, but the piece began like this:
Across continental Europe, more college and university classes are being taught in English. In making the switch to English, institutions in non-English-speaking countries believe they are better preparing students for a globalized workforce. They’re also seeking to attract more foreign students.
Students who study in English learn to read English, which makes an even larger market for English language books. As Kobo, Amazon, and Apple expand into foreign countries, the e-book market continues to grow. Now, when you publish a book, if you have the rights to sell it across the world, you should.
But that still doesn’t settle my French translation problem. When I publish a book in English, I know what the copy editor has done. I know what changes the proofer suggests. If I were to publish a book in French, I don’t know the language well enough to go over the translation let alone a copy edit or a proof.
I will have to trust someone to oversee my foreign translation. The question I have asked myself for the past few weeks—and will continue to ask myself—is do I want to set all of that up on my own? Or do I want to trust an existing company with years of publishing history under their belts?
Logically, I should go with the foreign publisher. But I’ve had the same problems with foreign publishers that I’ve had with American ones. For example, the French publisher of my Fey series bought the first five books (which comprise the first story arc), divided them in two, and then published the series through book four. (That’s eight books) When it came time to publish the fifth book (or books nine and ten, as the French saw them), the publisher canceled the contract. Not because me or my bad sales. In fact, my sales were excellent.
It was because my editor quit to pursue his own creative dreams, and the publisher canceled the fantasy line that the editor had championed. The publisher did not want to hire a new fantasy editor, so instead, all fantasy books in that line were canceled.
I still get letters from my French readers about that. At least now I can tell them to pick up the English-language version.
It’s always a risk to go with a traditional publisher. It’s a risk not to go with a traditional publisher when you’re dealing in a language you don’t know. It’s a risk to participate in the worldwide market; it’s hard to monitor your work in other countries. It’s a risk not to participate in the worldwide market; how many readers are you leaving behind?
Ultimately, like everything else in this new world of publishing, it’s up to the writer to make the right choices for her career.
Do remember one thing, however. Foreign rights sold through traditional venues (American publisher, agent) are easy to lose track of. If you let someone else handle the sales, make sure you know who your editor is. Make sure you have a contact at the foreign publishing house. Make sure you’ve signed a contract—in English (that’s quite a scam all by itself)—and make sure you know when your royalties are due.
Watch everything. Trust but verify. Remember how easy it is for money to stick to fingers it does not belong to.
Things continually change in this new world of publishing. Reaching readers all over the world is just one of the nifty new things available to us writers. Now we have to choose how to reach them. We’re limited by our own time, our resources, and our contracts.
Make the best choice for you for the moment. And keep writing. Because, in the end, that’s the best thing we writers can do.
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I appreciate it!
“The Business Rusch: “Selling Books Elsewhere” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.