F is for Foreign Rights

by Steve Laube

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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)

7 Responses to F is for Foreign Rights

  1. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan July 15, 2013 at 6:49 pm #

    I can’t imagine the complexities of navigating foreign rights. And I never thought about foreign play rights and foreign movie rights. Thanks for sharing your insight, Steve.

  2. Avatar
    Dawn King July 16, 2013 at 3:29 am #

    I handle copyrights permission requests for a large educational publisher as my day job. You are right, Steve, that it can be very complicated and foreign countries have fees and taxes we are not used to. I find it fascinating that many authors do not charge much at all and others charge astronomical fees. There is no standardization at all.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Avatar
    Donna K. Rice July 16, 2013 at 8:21 am #

    Great food for thought. Our world is getting smaller and legal issues will be more and more complex as time and technology move forward. The benefit of authors of having sound advice with regard to the rights for their projects is clear and we are wise to seek the counsel and representation of agents to help navigate the new world of publishing. I’m an attorney and I would not do this on my own! Thanks for a peek into the world of foreign rights, Steve.

  4. Avatar
    Cindy Riggins July 17, 2013 at 8:49 am #

    Our company serves as the foreign rights dept for several Christian publishers. As mentioned, 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 int’l 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), there are many markets that can provide a nice royalty stream for years.


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