Foreign Rights in 12 ‘Simple’ Steps…

The Mysterious Side of Publishing…

As authors and budding authors, you have more than likely come across the exciting notion of your book (or future book) being translated – and sold – into a whole other language!

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But the world of Foreign Rights can seem confusing – at best – to those who have never worked in publishing; a veritable jungle of jargon, a labyrinth of specialist lingo; a minefield of mayhem. Equally baffling to the bookworms, book bloggers and all-round fangirls and boys.

Never fear: I am here.

And I spent (erherm) around about fifteen years working in this very specialist field  of publishing. With children’s books, admittedly, but the process is pretty much the same. So today I am going to share with you my Beginner’s Guide to Foreign Rights. I will be using children’s books to illustrate the process, but, the principle is transferable to grown-up novels and non-fiction, too:

A book is born, and it’s a beautiful thing.

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But a publishing house wants to make a little more money out of said book than a standard UK print run alone can provide. And that’s where Foreign Rights comes into the picture. Although when it comes to children’s books, this particular side of the industry is nowhere near as charismatic and inspirational as it once was – well, around fifteen years… and the rest… ago, it IS still a very viable business.

We shall simply overlook the countless tears I have shed every time a big corporate publisher gobbles up a dynamic, quirky indie and ‘houses’ it under their umbrella. Anyway, moving swiftly on…

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Typically, said publishing house takes said book with them to a book fair (or one of their sales team takes the book, along with others, on a business trip). Frankfurt Book Fair is the biggest in the world, Bologna is the biggest children’s book fair in the world, London has gained huge importance in the past decade, as has Book Expo America, Warsaw, Guadalajara, Moscow… well, you name the city, chances are it hosts a book fair.
Indeed, if you are a Rights Manager, you could easily try to justify jetting off to one every week of the year.

Here’s the science bit:

1: The sales person presents the new titles that comprise the front list to the editor they (generally) have a half hour meeting slot with, on their stand, at the book fair.
Invariably editors have the prerogative to turn up late, thus forcing the rights person to cram everything into ten minutes… whilst concurrently keeping their next loitering editor in their sight… it has been known for editors to be pilfered by competitors before the very eyes.
The editor shows an interest in the book (or not), the interest is noted, a guide price is quoted and a sample will be sent to their office for further consideration. Nowadays it is very unusual for the price at the fair to be set in stone. Everything will depend on the overall print run of the co-edition. I’ll come to that in a bit.

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2: The sales person returns from the fair or trip, collates together ALL of the interest from all of the editors in all of the territories and requests up-to-date print prices based on a number of scenarios:
a) a large co-edition – this could (for example) include a 5000 copy French edition, a 2000 copy Latvian edition, a 10,000 copy Mexican edition, and a UK reprint of perhaps 3,000 copies.
b) a smaller (less optimistic, more realistic) co-edition
c) a standalone printing
The prices will vary wildly, and more often than not, they will only be valid for a certain length of time, which could be anything from a week to a month, given the current volatility of the financial markets. *More often than not, UK publishing houses print their books in China. Not always, but mostly.*

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3: The customer jumps on board.
If they do this quickly (or perhaps I am only talking about my own experience of foreign rights for children’s books), oh, what a miracle! Often there are committee decision making style meetings which have to take place, often the decision to publish the book will fly in via email somewhat late, often *read always* the customer will expect the price to remain the same. The contract is signed.

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4: But let’s backtrack a little… territory rights have to be assigned.
Assuming this is the fictitious Mexican customer from point 2, then they may also request territory rights for the rest of South America, mainland Spain… even the USA (for the Castillian Spanish language). So those things need to be ironed out.
Is the rights manager likely (realistically) to have another customer waiting in the wings in those countries?
Nowadays, unless the book is plastered with Disney-esque licensed characters, unless it is a Harry Potter or features The Gruffalo, the chances are, that no, there won’t be a queue of competitors waiting in the wings. Best sell the book while the interest is still lukewarm!

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5: A high resolution CD is sent to the designer at the overseas publishing house…
…and an ETA date for the translation material is given (the same date is stipulated in the contract). Nine times out ten however, things will wend their way into the foreign rights office later… much, much later!

Oh, the joys! Somebody please remind me why I used to do this job?

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6: The CD containing the translated version of the book should have everything in its proper place.
The overseas publishing house may change the font type, size and colour, but generally not the cover design – unless it is a standalone printing and special permission has been requested.
The inside text should be in BLACK, not four colour (oh, the number of times that has happened and customers decided they’d prefer a red or a purple or a blue = an extra plate change at the factory = a standalone printing and much more money!).

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7: All language editions are sent off to the printer around the same time and proofs are created. In the ‘good old days’ of working with film, we referred to them as ozalids. Now they are blueprints or iris proofs, or just simply, proofs.
In the ideal, dream world, these are sent from the printer to the customer and they are perfect! A duplicate set of proofs is also sent to the production department of the UK publisher. Both the production manager in the UK and the designer/repro house in the customer’s country, will double check they are happy with everything.
In reality, the proofs are often littered with mistakes – everything from Hebrew working its way into an Arabic book (!), through to words bleeding over the edge of the page, to outlandish typing errors and wonky sentences.

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8: The OKTP (okay to print) is given. Hallelujah!
Still, nobody can quite rest on their laurels.
Why? Well, the advanced copies need to be checked by both UK and overseas parties… and you will be amazed at some of the mistakes that can wend their way into those. If I listed them all, you’d be asleep already.

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9: The advances are approved and full printing can finally go ahead.
But of course… unless you are a very big fish in the publishing world, you may well find that suddenly, the ‘ex-works‘ (the leaving the factory) date of the books has erm… slipped… sometimes BIG time. Often (undisclosed to customer or UK publishing house, it’s because a nice, equally big order has fought its way to the front of the queue courtesy of the aforementioned corporate publishers.

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And sometimes it genuinely IS because one of those customers who makes up your co-edition, has been shockingly, unforgivably late approving their proofs!
Regardless of who is to blame, it’s back to the customer again… because the customer is always right when it comes to foreign rights.
Right?
‘Is this okay? We will try our best to see if the factory can speed things up… perhaps the books will catch a super speedy vessel…”

10: Usually they will vent… and then realise there is little more that can be done. Sometimes, when for example, the end customer might be a supermarket giant, with a Christmas or back-to-school campaign, an air freight, and/or compensation might be demanded.
Then the whisky in the coffee begins… will the CEO agree… will the printer cover the cost… will you sleep tonight… will your fabulous £100,000 per year customer still be your friend tomorrow?

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And this is just children’s books. I mean, can you imagine the furore over a potential delay for the translated version of the latest Sarah J Maas title… or a Marian Keyes, the sort of authors who are highly likely to have a book signing tour going on in conjunction with those physical copies hitting the warehouse then giant bookstores on time in any given country?

Exactly. I am not sure my nerves could ever have taken the foreign rights requirements that are the adult publishing world!

11: Finally, finally, finally, those blessed books leave the factory, load the vessel and sail the high seas (often this is from Hong Kong) to their ETDs. Before which, all the paperwork needs to be completely in hand to ensure a swift offloading of goods and onward transportation to the warehouse. Which is where the magic of the production or rights assistant comes into play – if you are lucky, in many smaller publishing houses, you will also have to take care of that side of things yourself.

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12: Another month, another book fair… and your customer declares they want a reprint.

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