Business Musings: Subsidiary Rights For Indies
One of my traditional publishers paid me in September.
I was surprised.
Not because I didn’t know about the money. I did. It was an advance for rights in translation for an entire series of books.
I was surprised because the contract called for payment to arrive within 60 days of the contract’s final date…and lo and behold, the payment arrived just like it was supposed to.
You see, I’ve worked with this publisher before, back in the days when I was agented. My agent told me that the publisher’s payment—all foreign rights payments—were seriously unreliable, that she had no idea when we would see the money.
I checked my old records. The contracts were different (as I have said), and sure enough, even though the books back then were contracted for in March, I didn’t see a dime of the money until January of the following year.
And…the check was dated mid-December (12/19, I think), but not mailed until 12/31, causing a discrepancy between the tax form my agent issued (a 1099, for you Americans) and what I would declare on my taxes.
Yes, that agency was playing games with the money. That’s the agency, in fact, that I threatened with a forensic accounting audit, and they kicked me to the curb the next day, sending notices to all of my U.S. publishers that I wouldn’t be represented by them any more.
But the foreign rights agent with that company? She refused to let any of my foreign publishers know that I had left the agency. I wrote to everyone I was publishing with at the time, and informed them, but some of my money still disappears into that agency’s insatiable maw.
That agency, by the way, is not a fly-by-night organization. Its website, which I just visited, describes the agency as “one of the largest literary agencies in the world,” touts its foreign rights department, and its accounting department. It has an impressive widget showing all of this year’s New York Times bestsellers, some of whom are friends of mine. I’ve warned them about the problems I’ve had with the agency, but my friends have chosen to ignore me.
Sometimes, I think they believe I’m overwrought.
But I’m not alone. A lot of writers have left the agency for similar reasons to mine. I don’t think about that agency very often any more, except when something happens, like getting paid in September.
That payment, sent on time and (as I requested) through PayPal, reminded me why I handle my own negotiations for everything these days.
Even if that really big name agency hadn’t been sliding some of my foreign rights money into its own pockets (or, just as bad, losing it in their oh-so-great accounting system), I still wouldn’t have been paid if they had made this deal for me.
One: Agencies like that one partner with other agencies in the other country. Generally speaking, the writer pays 20% of the money she receives to the agents—10% to the U.S. agent who set up the partnership and 10% to the foreign agent.
So, right there, I would have received 20% less than I received.
Two: The old agent-negotiated contract would not have had the payment clause in it. My current contract would have become invalid if I had not received my funds within 60 days.
The current contract also has an end date. It terminates in a few years. It can be renewed by mutual agreement.
These two contract clauses were in the current contract that my editor at the publishing house sent me. I had been prepared to ask for those things (although I probably would have said 90 days on payment), but I didn’t have to.
There are many other friendlier clauses in that contract than the one the dual agents negotiated for me with the same company back in the day. I’m just as well known now as I was then. The different clauses favor the agent, not me.
(Yeah, I was young and naïve. Sigh.)
Three: Assuming the money got paid according to the publisher’s sixty-day schedule anyway, that money would have had to flow through two other accounting departments before it came to me.
The foreign rights agency would get the money first, and take its cut. Then it would wire the money to the U.S. agency. Those wire fees—by the way—they come out of the writer’s share (not that most writers look). Wire fees are significantly higher than PayPal fees.
The U.S. agency would get the money and was under no timely obligation to send the money to me.
My former agency (the one mentioned above) would review their accounting books at the beginning of December and see what they hadn’t paid out yet. Early on, I would get support documentation from the foreign publisher showing that the money had been issued from the foreign publisher months previous, sometimes six months earlier, sometimes more.
Eventually, someone in this agency wised up and stopped sending the support documentation. I got real pissy about that, but it made no real difference. I couldn’t speed up getting paid by them, no matter how hard I tried.
Four: Let’s assume everyone in that financial chain is honest. That’s a heck of an assumption, by the way, since two of my former U.S. agents embezzled from me. Those were the two I caught. They’re also still in business.
I’ve had even more foreign rights agents embezzle from me. Some of them were caught by my U.S. agents. One of them had begged me to let him keep my money to pay off his Russian mob connections or he would die. (You can’t make this shit up.)
But let’s go into a fantasyland where unregulated agents in this country and other countries are honest, aboveboard, and would never ever ever embezzle from anyone.
It would still take months to get the money.
Two months from the publisher. An unregulated period of time from the agency in the publisher’s country. And a similarly unregulated period of time from the agency in the United States.
The only ticking clock was and is the publication of the book itself. And since I don’t live in that country, I would often not know when the book was actually published.
That changed with the arrival of Amazon. Now writers, if they’re so inclined, can check to see if their foreign novels have been published.
But most writers—especially big name New York Times bestsellers—do not. They often don’t know unless someone contacts them for a book tour or an interview or simply sends a fan letter.
Very few of those authors check to see if the foreign money has hit their accounts. If the author does check, she’ll find that it often hasn’t.
That’s how I caught one of my agents embezzling. I discovered the books had been published in March. It was the end of August. I had seen no money.
I emailed the foreign rights agent and asked where my payment was. She emailed back and said it hadn’t arrived, and she would look into it. By then, I didn’t trust her, so I emailed my overseas editor who checked and said the money had been sent before publication. Not to mention money sent six months before that, and a year before that…none of which I had seen. Or even knew of.
But…we’re pretending these people are honest, right? Still it would take 60 days (minimum) from the publisher, another 60 days (in fantasyland) from the foreign agency, and still another 60 days from the U.S. agency. Six months minimum. An extra four months to get the money.
Usually, though, it took nearly a year—even with the agents I had whom I trusted a hair more than the embezzlers. A year after the contract was signed.
I got more money (20% more) months sooner than I would have received it otherwise. And a better contract. And easier working relations.
This is why I cringe when I hear indie authors say that they need an agent for their foreign rights.
No! Stay away from agents for foreign rights. Agents will often skim or lose the money or flat-out embezzle. They can’t be trusted.
One major foreign rights agent who operates out of the U.S. asks for power of attorney from his clients so he can sign the deals himself. I cannot tell you how many kinds of wrong that is. Oh, wait! I already did.
This practice—requiring limited power of attorney from clients—is becoming more common, not less. If you sign one of those for your unregulated agent, you have just committed the stupidest act of your financial (and legal) life.
Let me be clear about a few things:
One: Just because you have published a book that sells well in the United States doesn’t mean you will sell the translation rights to that same book in any country.
Two: Just because you have an agent dedicated to selling foreign rights doesn’t mean those rights will sell either.
Three: The markets in different countries are different. Tastes are different. Just because readers like a book in the States doesn’t mean that readers in Germany will like the book (and vice versa).
Four: Your book in translation is only as good as your translator. If you get a mediocre or crap-ass translator for your book, then your book will be poorly written in that foreign language, and further sales will not happen no matter how brilliant the English-language edition of the book is (or how good the plot is).
Got all of that?
Let me go a bit further on points one and two. I’m going to deal with point two first.
Here’s a nasty little secret: agents don’t put a lot of effort into selling foreign rights (or any subsidiary right, for that matter). Unless you’re a #1 New York Times bestseller and/or your book has received a lot of buzz, an agent will do little more than present your book as part of his list.
That list will include every other available book published that year only, with a paragraph or two (and maybe a review or two). The list will be separated by genre, but that’s about it.
Agents only promote their top-selling clients to foreign publishers.
Every other writer gets a foreign deal because 1) the foreign publisher had already heard of the writer/book, and asked the agent about it or 2) the foreign publisher was looking for a book about X, and your book was the best book they found about X.
That’s it, folks. That’s all an agent ever does, except field phone calls, go through email contacts, and “evaluate” the possible deals. Some agents have even given up going to book fairs, like Frankfurt (which is happening this month) because it’s easier to work in the digital space than it is in the physical one. (And the editors rotate through publishing companies so fast now that contacts made in October might be irrelevant in July.)
Now, to point one:
I’m going to say this to Americans first, because most of you have given the rest of the world very little thought.
The United States is huge. We have 50 states, many of which have more land area than many countries. California all by itself has more land and more population than most countries. In fact, California has the sixth largest economy in the world, and is on pace to becoming the fifth largest economy in the world—which means it will displace the United Kingdom.
Because we have a larger population, we have more readers than most places. Not by percentage of the population, but in actual physical numbers. (The country whose population spends the most time reading? That award goes to India, followed by Thailand and China. We clock in at 24.)
Because we have a huge population, we comprise 30% of the global book market—by far the largest share. China is next at 10% of the global book market.
What does that mean for you?
Well, you can look at it two ways. You can look at it on a per-country basis, or you can look at it globally.
If you look at it on a country by country basis, you’re going from a large market to a small market. That small market already has its own bestsellers and national authors. They make up the bulk of the book sales. There’s very little room for an international author.
For example, if you’re moving from a country with 30% of the market (U.S.) to a country with 9% (Germany), you’re automatically decreasing your chances of a book sale in that country’s native language.
If you look at it on a global basis, you have 70% of the market still untapped. But that means you’re looking at U.S. Sales versus Sales Everywhere Else. So even one publisher in one country picking up your work makes inroads into the global market.
And you’re ignoring something brand new to this modern era.
Not only is English the language of international business, English also accounts for half of all Web content. People all over the world speak and read English.
So when you go wide with your books—when you don’t have it in Kindle Select only—you are giving yourself a lot of opportunity to grow your readership, in English.
The more people who read your book in English around the world, the greater your chances of getting a deal in translation. Why? Because those English readers want to share your book with their friends who do not read English. Some of your readers in other countries have connections to book publishers who have translation departments. And those departments do look for books to translate outside of the Big Name Bestsellers.
The book deal that paid me in September? It originated from two things: I had released a book in that series that had not been translated into the country’s language yet, and readers insisting on having the entire series in print. Letters from readers, demanding the series, combined with a new book, led the editor to contact me about starting our relationship anew, without that horrid U.S. book agency between us.
So…how do you sell your translation rights on your own?
Well, I’ll be honest: I’m too busy to do most of the things I’m about to tell you. I would rather let the foreign publishers come to me instead of going to them.
But judging from the letters I get from folks who want to know right now how to get their books translated into other languages, a lot of you want to be proactive about this.
You can do a variety of things.
One: Make sure your novels are available in English in every country in the world. That way, if someone hears about your work, they can buy a copy of your novel without contacting you. This sort of thing happens all the time. And it’s a lot easier than having a request go to your agent who will then “decide” whether or not the contact is “worthwhile” based on little or no evidence at all.
Often I had agents forget or decline to send copies of my books to an interested publisher. That no longer happens—partly because I handle my own negotiations, and partly because my work is available in English worldwide.
Two: If you write short stories, market your short stories to overseas publications. Doug Smith has a great list of those markets—what pays, what doesn’t, what exists, what has gone out of business. Read his how-to article before you try this.
A lot of book publishers read short fiction in translation, searching for that great writer from another country. Some organizations in those countries give awards for best translated work, including short stories. If you have a good translation and your story gets nominated, you will come to the attention of that country’s publishers. They’ll consider your work without telling you. So you won’t know if you’ve been rejected by them. But they will contact you if they’re interested in publishing one of your novels.
Three: Make contacting you easy. Have a contact button on your website. I can’t tell you how many contacts I get through my contact-me link. My second biggest source for foreign rights contacts? Facebook.
Usually someone approaches me asking for the name of my agent. I tell them I handle my own work.
Before I ever respond, though, I Google the person and the publishing house. I investigate to see if they’re legit. If they are, then find out what they want and what they’re willing to pay.
If you don’t know how to negotiate, pick up my book How To Negotiate Anything and/or look at the free posts online. Remember. Do not negotiate by phone. Only by email. (Which is much easier with a foreign publisher, since you’ll have time zone differences.)
Four: You do have a website, right? If not, put up a website right now. It can be a static site (meaning you don’t need to add content on a regular basis), but you need a website for your writing business. ASAP
Five: Make paying you easy. Use PayPal if possible. You don’t want to hand out bank account information to someone you have not vetted in a country where you do not speak the language.
Six: Use databases like Publishers Marketplace to discover the names of the traditional foreign publishers and their editors. Query them, just like you would query a U.S. publisher. Or, in the case of some of you, like you used to query agents.
Include reviews from legitimate review sites and from bloggers, not your Amazon reviews. (Although you can and should mention Amazon reviews if you have hundreds of them.) Be a sales person.
You’ll probably be ignored, but at least you tried.
Seven: Go to the big book fairs. I hesitate to tell you to do this because these book fairs have become less important over the years. The fairs are a big investment in time and energy, and the deals negotiated in rights alley are not very big any more. But it’s an option, especially if you live in one of those places where there is an annual book fair—Frankfurt, London, New York.
The first year, you should just go and observe. Don’t even try to play with the big fish until the second year. And even then, you’ll be at a disadvantage because you’re an author and this is a traditional publishing venue.
The other reason I’m hesitant to tell you this? Book fairs are vestiges of the pre-internet days. In 2017, only 7400 non-publisher attendees appeared at Book Expo in New York. By contrast, ten years ago, the attendance was 27,000. That’s a drop of 20,000 attendees connected to the publishing industry.
Book Expo is trying to cope by adding a BookCon to the end of the expo, just to recoup the costs. That’s kinda sorta working, but the BookCon is a fan-based thing, not a rights-sale kinda place.
As industry experts were saying as far back as 2013, the rights fair part of book fairs have decreased in importance (significantly decreased). Most of the people interviewed in the 2013 Bookseller article I found justify their presence at Frankfurt as a way to put faces to the digital correspondence. If you read the quotes in the article, what you see over and over again is a variation on this quote from Bridget Shine, who is Chief Executive of Independent Publishers Group, “We may connect digitally on a daily basis, but there is no substitute for meeting people face-to-face, and of course the social side matters too.”
That’s the old publishers network, hanging onto the past. As one person said in the article: they are “a tribe who share meals, friendship, information, secrets.” All of which has become less and less important in the intervening years.
So go if it’s local for you. But don’t bother if it’s not.
Use this new-fangled thing called the internet—and make sure your books are available wide.
Eight: Before you ask, I do not have a list of foreign book publishers, nor have I actively looked for one. Pay for a Publishers Marketplace subscription and develop one on your own.
And don’t ask me to hold your hand here, either, or give you step-by-step instructions. This is a big area, and I have a life. If I’m going to train someone to handle foreign rights in translation, I’ll train a new employee of mine to do so, not volunteer my time for free to writers too lazy to do their own learning.
Yes, that’s harsh. Because writers need to hear harsh.
No one will take care of you. Take care of your business yourself.
I wouldn’t have thought much about the payment arriving so fast if it weren’t for the Pulphouse Kickstarter I’d been doing. I was actively looking at old files from the 1990s, thinking about the ways we did things—the way most traditional publishers in the U.S. still do things.
That recommendation to get an agent to sell your foreign rights? It comes from an era when communications between countries was hard, done through personal contacts, phone, fax, and letter.
Now contact between countries is easy. I am in touch with people from around the world on a daily basis. People from several countries support this blog (thank you!).
You don’t need an agent to sell your foreign rights. An agent will get in the way of everything, get you a worse deal, cost you 20%, and hang onto your money for much too long.
They also provide no value for all of that. They won’t actively market your work unless you’re a major English language bestseller. They will not help you in this modern marketplace.
Yes, yes, I know. Negotiating with someone scares you. Learning how to read contracts scares you.
It’s your business. You need to learn copyright, contracts, and negotiation—even if you hire an agent. (How will you know if they’re doing a good job if you don’t understand your own business?)
I’m trying to keep you away from the vestiges of the last century, though. If you’re an indie writer, then be an indie writer in all things. That includes translation rights and subsidiary rights sales.
Good luck, and have fun.
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“Business Musings: Subsidiary Rights For Indies,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.