by Steve Laube
Publishing is a global concern. The new Penguin Random House (co-owned by Bertlesmann from Germany and Pearson from the UK) is the largest publisher in the world. The fourth largest publisher is based in the Netherlands. (See this link for a list of the top 50 largest publishers worldwide.) There are thousands of publishers outside the U.S. most of which publish in their native language. Therefore, in most contracts, the foreign rights or translation rights are negotiated.
Some publishers have a dedicated rights division which handles the licensing of your book into other languages. Your contract defines how any income is to be split between you and your publisher. (It is usually a 50/50 split.) Often we have negotiated with the publisher who is doing the English language edition to also manage foreign language licensed. However our agency has also handled the licensing for book published in Korean, Dutch, German, and Slovakian. It is quite fun to look on our shelves and find our client’s books also printed in Russian, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Indonesian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French.
It can be a complex transaction. Once, in an highly unusual deal, we sold a U.S. Publisher the North American English rights, a Korean publisher the Korean language rights, and a U.K. 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.)
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).
On occasion an unusual translation request can come about. The book Dinner with a Perfect Stranger was a bestseller in Korea. So much so that we sold both the Korean language stage play rights and the Korean language musical theatre rights.
The advent of electronic publishing has created a world of commerce without borders. Consequently many new issues have surfaced. For example, we have a friend who lives in France and has an Amazon Kindle. Due to boundary restrictions he could not buy certain titles while in France. Those issues are now being resolved but at first it was a bit of a chaotic landscape.
Selling translation rights is a small part of the overall business of a publisher or an agent, but it an important one. Especially in getting your story or message “into all the world.” (Mark 16:15)