(A version of this post was published in Spring 2022. It has been revised for today.)
Those of us in the United States tend to frame the publishing universe within our borders in the English language. We can forget that publishing is a global concern.
You may have heard of Penguin Random House (owned by Bertelsmann, a German company) because their various imprints dominate the best-seller list. But they are not the largest publisher in the world. (They are third!) The largest publisher, RELX Group (aka Reed Elsevier), has offices in 40 countries and annual revenue of $6.33 billion. (See this link for a list of the top 10 largest publishers worldwide. The list may be behind a paywall.) There are thousands of publishers outside the US, most of which publish in their native language. Therefore, in most contracts, foreign rights or translation rights are negotiated.
Some publishers have a dedicated rights division that handles the licensing of your book into other languages. Your contract defines how income will be split between you and your publisher. (It is usually a 50/50 split.) Frequently, a publisher will negotiate for world rights in all languages.
But, in some cases, we have held onto the non-English translation rights; and those licensing opportunities are done by our agency. Some of our hybrid clients (those who publish both traditionally and independently) have had us handle their foreign rights inquiries. Thus, over the years, I’ve handled the licensing for client’s books published in Arabic, Korean, Dutch, German, Complex Chinese, Simple Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Slovakian. It is quite fun to look on our shelves and find our client’s books also printed in Polish, Czechoslovakian, Indonesian, Russian, and French.
It can be a complex transaction. Once, in a highly unusual deal, we sold a US publisher the North American English rights, a Korean publisher the Korean language rights, and a British publisher the Commonwealth English rights. In other words, we sold the same book three times. A problem surfaced later in defining “Commonwealth” because the list of nations in that group has not been static over the years. (The biggest ones include the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Currently, it comprises 56 nations.)
Make sure you set your financial expectations right. One time, an overseas publisher issued us a check for royalties earned. After subtracting the Foreign Withholding Tax, the wire transfer fees, etc., the author earned less than $10 (from which our agency commission was deducted).
Occasionally, an unusual translation request can come our way. The Korean translation of the book Dinner with a Perfect Stranger became a best-seller in South Korea. It was so popular that we later sold both the Korean language stage-play rights and the Korean language musical-theatre rights.
For some publishers, the complexities of handling translation rights are better served by a company dedicated to the work. Fortunately, there are some good ones. Cindy Riggins of Riggins Rights Management has been handling such work for over thirty years. She wrote, “Foreign rights can be complex because each language is a unique market in their economic conditions that affect pricing, tax issues, size of the market, etc. Many publishers cannot afford the cost of pursuing international rights or do not have the trained staff to deal with them. While in the Christian market, there are still a lot of ‘ministry’ rights where the author or publisher does not make any real royalty revenue (only the knowledge that the work is impacting many lives), but there are many markets that can provide a nice royalty stream for years.”
Selling translation rights is a small part of the overall business of a publisher or an agent, but it is an important one. Especially in getting your story or message “into all the world” (Mark 16:15).