On the Book Marketing
Network website, John Penberthy related the story of how he received almost
$40,000 from selling foreign rights for his book, To Bee or Not to Bee:
After self-publishing my book, To Bee or Not to Bee, a year and a half
ago I got a website made (http://www.ToBeeBook.com)
which included a 60 second trailer. Then I identified email addresses of over
100 foreign literary agents through Internet research and sent them a brief
descriptive email with the link to the trailer. This piqued the interest of a
dozen or so who requested a review copy. Several of them took me on and offers
for translation rights from foreign publishers started coming Korean, Italian,
Spanish, Portuguese, Slovenian, Chinese, and Romanian with advances totaling
nearly $40k. Several other languages are in the works. I strongly recommend
using literary agents (as opposed to contacting publishers directly); they are
worth their weight in gold.
Given his success with selling foreign rights, he then sent out 50 books to
American literary agents. With several responding, he chose one and within two
months, the agent got him a contract offer from Sterling Publishing (a division
of Barnes & Noble). As a result, his book was released as a hardcover in the
U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia.
The following is adapted from an interview
conducted by Author Marketing Experts with John Penberthy, providing more
details on how he sold $40,000 worth of foreign rights.
So what does it take to make a bundle on foreign rights? I
recently spoke with John Penberthy about securing foreign rights sales, and he
said it really wasn't that hard. It just takes a dash of persistence, patience,
and creativity! Here's my interview with John:
What's the most important thing authors should know when pitching their book to
a foreign rights person?
Make it brief and succinct. You're pitching via email, agents get a ton of
emails/day and you have to have something that will be quick and grab their
attention. In my case, I wrote a brief two-paragraph letter with a link to my 60-second trailer. So they could tell very quickly if it was something they might
be interested in. At the end of the trailer was a link to my site, where I
offered the ebook version for free as a way of generating buzz. Interested
agents could then read a few chapters to see if they wanted to request a hard
One thing that strongly worked in my favor was that you can read my book in 90
minutes. Agents are overwhelmed with book submissions and loathe the amount of
time it takes to read them, so 90 minutes was a breath of fresh air for them.
Offering the ebook free was huge because it quickly disseminated the book all
over the world and resulted in all kinds of interesting inquiries. You don't
want to do it forever, but when you're starting out, it really helps generate
buzz and eliminates all risk for prospective buyers. It was instrumental in many
of my foreign rights deals.
What types of books work better for foreign rights?
My book, To Bee or Not to Bee, is a spiritual allegory about bees, sort of a
next-generation Jonathan Livingston Seagull. People the world over have sought
more meaning in their lives through spiritual understanding from time
immemorial, so I felt my book had universal appeal. I had the illustrations
drawn in a Chinese watercolor style in order to reflect the story's Eastern
approach to spirituality, which is really taking hold in the West, but also to
appeal to the huge Asian market. This has worked well as two of my contracts are
for Korean and Chinese, and I think I'm close in Taiwan and Japan.
Each author has to evaluate the extent to which their book
will appeal to those within 1) the U.S., 2) Europe, 3) Latin America, and then
4) Asia. These are the four big markets and each is a step removed from the
previous one. So many books are written specifically for Americans because
America is the biggest market. You're probably not going to get any foreign
deals for a cookbook, but I would think computer and Internet books would do
well in most countries because computer people all speak the same language. Each
author needs to assess the universality of his or her book's appeal.
What should be included in the foreign rights packet?
Once I would get email replies from interested agents, I would send them just
things the book and a detailed cover letter explaining the book, its
uniqueness, market appeal, and track record. For example, my book is a
strong gift book we're averaging nearly 5 books sold per customer through our
website. So I always made sure to mention this and the fact that To Bee or Not
to Bee is a perennial gift book that would be in print for decades. Multiple
sales and longevity definitely grab the attention of prospective publishers.
A zillion new books are published each year and publishers are always looking
for something new and different, so I would encourage people to explain why
their book is new and different. As foreign rights sales grew, I always
mentioned the previous translation rights I had sold and the names of the
publishers (to add credibility).
How long does it take for a foreign rights deal to happen?
It really varies. My first deal, Korean, was signed within a month of sending
the agent the book. The book was published three months after that. This is
lightning speed in the publishing world. My second deal, Italian, took about two
months because the agent took it to the Frankfurt Book Fair, by far the largest
book fair in the world, which happened soon after she received the book. I was
lucky to have these deals happen so quickly, but one to two months is abnormally
My third and fourth deals, Spanish and Portuguese, took about
six months, again at a book fair. By the time these editions are released, 1 1/2
years will have elapsed. In general, the publishing world moves at a snail's
pace so you have to be patient. My latest deal, Chinese, also took over six
months. But other agents have been working other countries for over a year and
still have no publisher prospects. Some publishers sit on books forever.
Once To Bee or Not to Bee is re-released by Sterling
Publishing in the English-speaking world this fall and establishes a sales track
record, I plan on doing another email blitz to foreign rights agents in all the
countries for which rights haven't been sold, apprising them of this new
information. I hope this will generate a new round of rights sales.
Should authors hire someone to negotiate for them?
I'm a strong believer in literary agents. Publishers rely on them to sort
through all the riff-raff and know that books sent to them by good agents are
worth their time considering. But most importantly, agents know what a book is
worth and will negotiate the best deal for you. There are instances of
publishers working directly with authors, but it's a long shot. Publishers
know authors are inexperienced in negotiating and desperate, so it's highly
likely the authors didn't get the best deal possible.
But you don't hire agents. If they like your book, they choose
you and then work on a commission basis, usually 15% of advances and subsequent
royalties. The author pays nothing up front; the agents only get paid if they
Most foreign agents work with a co-agent in the author's
country, who feed them books to market, which already have a proven sales track
record in the author's country. In these cases, the two agents usually split a
20% commission. In my case it was the reverse. I marketed my book directly to
foreign rights agents and built a track record of rights sales in other
countries, which I then used to attract a U.S. agent who subsequently got me a
contract with Sterling Publishing here in the U.S.
How much time can an author expect to allocate to this process?
It's not very time-consuming. First you research foreign rights agencies on the
Internet and put your list together. Then you draft your email letter and send
it out. I probably haven't spent more than a couple of weeks on this in total in
a year and a half.
[Note: Instead of spending time researching foreign rights
agents, you can order the
Literary, Subsidiary, &
Foreign Rights Agents report by John Kremer for only
$6.00, download it right away, and go to work contacting the best agents in
every country. Click on Add to Cart to order now.]
What are the things you look for in a foreign rights contract?
Because the agent is the intermediary, she usually has a standard contract which
she prepares and sends to both parties for signatures, so the foreign contracts
you will see are generally quite similar. The key factors, of course, are the
amount of the non-refundable advance and the royalty rate, generally only 7-8%
on foreign rights, which should be applied to the retail price.
Royalties are deducted from the advance. Once the advance is
paid back, the publisher makes royalty payments. Most publishers calculate
royalties following the end of each calendar year, though some do so
semi-annually. Payments are due a quarter later. The contract should have a
finite term, usually five years. If the book proves to be big with good
longevity, it can go back on the market at the end of the term for much better
One thing that is absolutely critical is that the publisher provide a
computerized statement showing sales, returns, etc. via postal mail to the
author for each period. If figures are provided any other way (i.e. via email),
it is too easy to fudge them. The language and geographic territory licensed
should be specified. And the number of complimentary books provided to the
author should be specified. The agent's commission should be identified. One
other important thing, for my book at least, was to limit rights to book
publishing only. My vision is to see To Bee or Not to Bee made into a digitally
animated film and so I always retained audio-visual rights.
You're dealing with a bunch of strangers in foreign countries. Once you've got a
contract, what about getting paid?
For the advance you've got leverage because you don't email the manuscript file
until you get the advance. But for royalties, once the advance is paid back, it
can be dicey, depending upon the quality of the agents and size of the
publishers you're working with. My Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese
contracts were secured by established agencies with large publishers. They
provide computerized sales reports and are very legit. Publishers in Asia and
Eastern Europe can be more problematic, depending on their size and reputation.
Many of these countries have only recently signed the international copyright
agreements and some of the more marginal publishers still don't feel they need
to comply with them.
Even if the publisher does comply, they send the money to the
agent, who is supposed to send it on to you, so there's an extra layer of
opportunity for graft. They know that you have no leverage; who's going to spend
thousands of dollars hiring lawyers in a country halfway around the world unless
there are clearly large royalties at stake? The only leverage you have is if you
have an American co-agent involved because the foreign co-agent's reputation is
at stake within the international agent community. Even then, many American
co-agents expect only to receive their share of the advance and spend little if
any effort to collect royalties unless they are substantial. The moral of the
story: The larger and more established the agency and publisher, the better
chance you have of getting paid.
Reprinted and adapted from The Book Marketing Expert
newsletter, a free ezine offering book promotion and publicity tips and
techniques. Subscribe at http://www.amarketingexpert.com.
Literary, Subsidiary, &
Foreign Rights Agents This Word report includes more than 1,375 literary agents, including 375 agents
that sell foreign rights and another 50 or so that handle subsidiary rights sales. This report
also includes a sample foreign rights contract. $6.00.
Foreign Book Distributors, Wholesalers,
& Sales Reps This report features more than 345 companies that provide foreign distribution or sales representation.
This report also includes a sample foreign distribution contract. Just $30.00.