By the time this posts, I’ll already be at the DGLM table in the International Rights Center at the Jacob Javits Center, doing my duty at Book Expo America as the agency’s subsidiary rights director. Today is the beginning of American publishing’s largest trade show and, for me, a three-day extravaganza of back-to-back meetings with foreign publishers, sub-agents, scouts, audio editors, and film producers. I’ll leave it to one of my colleagues to give you the BEA scoop in another post, but in the meantime, I thought it might be a good time to talk subrights.
I offered a basic rundown of how subrights works a couple years ago, but maybe now would be a good time to talk in more depth. Since foreign rights take up the bulk of my time—and will account for most of my meetings this week—why don’t we start there? If you’d like to know more about audio, film, and serial, just let me know below, and I’ll tackle them in future posts.
Foreign is the biggest rights market. When a book sells to an American publisher, there are more or less three options: North American, world English, or world. Occasionally a book sells separately to Canada and the US, but that’s not the norm unless the author is Canadian, and even then, it really depends on the type of book.
In a North American rights deal, the American publisher will distribute their edition in English in the US, Canada, the US territories, and the open market. The open market is the term for those territories where English-language rights are fair game. American and British publishers have essentially carved up the world into three sections: US exclusive territories; UK & Commonwealth exclusive territories; and everywhere else. Occasionally, there’s a land grab from one side or the other insisting that they must have exclusive rights to a particular place (BEA 2006 featured a panel on the whole kerfuffle). I’ve seen British publishers insist that they should get Europe exclusively because they’re…nearby? And I’ve seen US publishers insist that India’s not in the British Commonwealth. The part of it that always perplexes me is that the major players on both sides are generally owned by the same parent companies. The open market is the territories in which both the US and the UK publishers are allowed to sell. In the end, all that matters from the authors’ and agents’ perspectives is that the publishers’ dispute doesn’t prevent a sale to both territories and that the book is widely available. The notion that an island nation that no one involved could pick out on a map is a deal breaker is really quite silly. Fortunately, it usually works out.
In a world English deal, this is blessedly not our problem, though unfortunately we also lose the chance to do a separate deal in the UK. This typically means that the US publisher has a UK arm that they feel will publish or distribute the book well. All non-English rights, though, are controlled by the author, which means that we’re trying to place those where possible.
In a world rights deal, it’s all—English and every other language—in the publisher’s hands.
The way that foreign rights deals are typically done is through a network of subagents in the major territories throughout the world. In countries like the UK, Germany, Japan, etc., there are agencies that represent American publishers and agents, and those are the people I work most closely with on foreign rights deals. Our subagents represent the full list of rights that we represent on behalf of our authors in their territories, though of course not all books will sell in all countries.
Sometimes, books don’t sell internationally at all—it’s often said that such books “don’t travel.” Books that depend largely on pre-existing interest in the author or subject, for example, are less likely to sell internationally if that pre-existing interest isn’t also international. A novel by a small publisher in the US is more likely to sell than a bestselling American cookbook by a celebrity chef who is not on TV outside the US market. This is one of the things I love most about foreign rights: the rules are totally different and sometimes the little guy in the US market gets to be a bigshot elsewhere. As part of that, there’s a lot of information to manage: true crime sometimes sells in Australia, Germany and Japan, but rarely elsewhere unless the case has international reach; memoirs are tough in Spain; and you can’t typically sell to a foreign country those things that they feel they do better than the US. For example, literary fiction is tough to sell in France, but commercial novels are easier. (The French don’t exactly clamor for American attempts at high culture.) Horror’s tough to sell in Asia, because their standards for what’s frightening are quite different than the American one: think of The Ring as compared to an American slasher flick.
I really love these little glimpses into foreign cultures, and it’s always really satisfying when I choose a book to highlight for a particular subagent or publisher and get a sale. And it’s a huge pleasure to work directly with clients of the agency who aren’t my own, some of whom I’ll be lucky enough to see for a bit at the fair!