Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Follow-Up on Writers Earning Money

I didn't think to include this in the last post, which is OK because it's needlessly complicated, but another way writers make money - sometimes, how they make most of their money - is in foreign rights.

Remember that when a publisher buys your book, they don't buy the physical book. They buy the right to copy the material in the book and then resell it. Different companies will ask for different rights, and it's a good agent's job to negotiate what rights you give away in the initial offering and what rights you hold on to.

For example, a publisher will ask for world rights. These are, obviously, the rights to publish anywhere in the world in any language. The publisher has total control over your book. Agents don't like to give this away, or not unless the publisher actually has the ability to publish the book all over the world and is willing to pay a lot of money.

The stage below that is generally considered to be English-language rights. This means everything but translations, so you can still sell to foreign companies that intend to produce your book in another language. It's still a major rights grab, though.

What an American agent would probably prefer you to sell is North America & UK rights. In other words, the English-speaking and easily-shippable world (Australia and India, two big English markets, are far away). So they get the US, Mexico, Canada, and the UK, and possibly Ireland depending on some fine-tuning of the language.

Why would you want to keep as many rights as you can? Because if you have a good agent,t hat agent will have contacts with foreign agents around the globe. If the book even moderately successful, the agent will then take the books to the other agents and say, "Shop this in your country." Hopefully, the foreign agent will succeed in selling it to a local press, and there will be another contract for you with another advance (meaning $$$). Then rinse, repeat.

It is common practice in the publishing industry for agents to take a higher commission on foreign rights sold, say 25% instead of 15%, because they did more work and the foreign agent also has to get their cut. My boss, who does a lot of work in foreign rights, has probably 30 agencies she works with. I'm just guessing about that based on the amount of addresses I've had to write out on customs forms, some of which had characters I've otherwise never had to write (Thai is really hard). Some she hasn't spoken to in years, some she's in constant contact with, but they're all there, and if my boss is lucky she will sell the book an additional 5 times after the initial sale to a US publisher. And that means more money for her - and a lot more money for you.


xensen said...

Established writers make much of their money from speaking fees.

David Tanner said...

As an example of making more income from selling foreign rights, I know Jim C. Hines got a four thousand dollar advance for his first novel but the foreign rights sales added up to forty thousand. Most writers aren't making their living off advances; you have to look for multiple streams of income.

Dean Wesley Smith did a great blog post on this very topic:


Nicole said...

Wow didn't know about that. Okay so holding on to them :)


Anonymous said...

Just to correct a mistake, if the publisher has world rights it doesn't mean that publisher will translate the book to all foreign markets.
Just like your agent, the publisher will sell translation rights to foreign markets, often using the help of those co-agents your agency uses.
The cut will be similar to the cut your agent will take. In other words, the publisher here will function much like an agent, taking his 10-25% commission from the deal.

If the publishers see a good potential for the book in foreign markets, they will often raise the advance offered to include world rights.

So it's not always best to retain these rights. It really depeneds on how much extra money the publisher is willing to pay, and whether they have a good foreign rights department.

Anonymous said...

What about Film, Television and Audio (Radio, though I suppose Podcast could be added to that) Rights?

What are the chances of an author landing one of those contracts? I would imagine that only the very successful of the very successful would sell those rights (and even fewer would actually get made).

Amy B. said...

Huh, I've never seen NA and UK rights tied together like that. Our agency generally aims for NA straight up, with World English being the UK option.

The Rejecter said...

Anon 6:47,

Thanks for the clarification.

Eileen said...

Other things to be aware of- if your publisher keeps world rights, they still have to pay you if they sell/publish the book overseas. However any funds first apply against your advance. This is one way you may earn out before you book even comes out.

Also, if your publisher insists on keeping world rights, your agent should be able to put in a clause that says if they don't do anything with those rights then they revert back to you after a set period of time (say three years).

gorman said...

In the past only a select few novels were translated, especially into English. I am not sure I ever read a foreign novel in English when I was a kid.( ok Don Quixote)
Who agrees that this situation is going to change drastically and translation will become the norm? Anyone? Care to open a seperate topic on this, please rejecter?

The Rejecter said...

It depends on the market. Some books have more international appeal than others, for different reasons in fiction and non-fiction.

I will tell you a crazy story. Occasionally my boss sells a book to the PRC, in translation or not, with the understanding that they're going to edit out objectionable content. When we photocopy the contract, the final page has to be copied in color, which is much more expensive to do, because the Chinese put a red stamp on the final page and that stamp must be the same color red in each version of the contract.

Alice Gabathuler said...

@gorman: I live in Switzerland, my publisher is in Germany. There are loads and loads of translations from English into German - and only very, very few from German into English.

The American (and English) book market has been and is still extremely interesting for German publishers. There's hardly any publisher that doesn't hold rights in American / English books - not just in the bestsellers.

That doesn't really answer your question, but I thought it might be interesting for you to know.

Karl said...

What responsibilities does the writer have when rights are sold to a foreign market and the book is to be printed in another language?

gorman said...

Is it the case that foreign rights (for example publishing a German book in English)are already taken by the German publisher? So the author cannot sell a book published in German to someone who will translte it to english?
Alice G, can I get your email to disuss this more?

Carsten said...

Quite an interesting comment. Although I don't know if I fully understood your point. Do you mean that there are a lot of German publishers who hold the rights for publishing their German books in English language but they just don't do it?

Anonymous said...

I've just sold Japanese rights for a non fiction and by the time I've cleared and paid for picture permissions and given everyone their cut, I think I'll be lucky to have ANY money left!