Literary Agents Discuss Foreign Rights and the International Book Market

Priya Doraswamy and Carly Watters

Today’s guest post is a Q&A by Sangeeta Mehta (@sangeeta_editor), a former acquiring editor of children’s books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, who runs her own editorial services company.

For most writers, it’s a dream come true to have their book published in a foreign country. There’s little that tops the excitement of finding their book in bookstores when they travel abroad, of seeing how different publishers interpret their cover and title, of being able to create a gallery of their foreign editions, print or digital.

But should writers seek publication in the US even if their book’s sensibility isn’t “American”? If they already have a book deal, who should control their book’s foreign rights, their agent or their publisher? How do agents and publishers determine which geographic and language territories they should target around the world, and what sorts of challenges do they face when dealing with foreign publishers?

I spoke with literary agents Priya Doraswamy of Lotus Lane Literary and Carly Watters of P.S. Literary, both of whom have worked extensively in the international market. As with all my Q&As, neither knew the other’s identity until after they submitted their answers to my questions below.

Sangeeta Mehta: Do you actively take on clients who live in other countries? If so, aside from finding a time to communicate, are there any challenges you and your clients face, such as dealing with currency conversions or publicity opportunities? Are American publishers sometimes reluctant to work with writers outside the US for this reason?

Priya Doraswamy: Yes, I do actively take on clients who reside in other countries. While the work itself is fulfilling, there are logistical as well as other challenges that make it difficult sometimes. As you rightly say, one of the challenges is contending with time differences. The other issue is the expense. Before WhatsApp, and other apps, communication by phone was awfully expensive, but now it’s much easier and affordable to communicate with authors in far-flung regions of the world.

The time difference also makes it tough for clients in Asia and Europe to participate in online and in-person marketing and PR opportunities in the US. For instance, authors lose out on virtual live book events, tours and conferences. As for in-person events, unless the author has the means to visit the US, book events, tours and conferences are also ruled out.

The other issue is because of lack of author provenance in the US, it is much harder to elicit TV/radio and press engagements. The only exception is when the author is an international celebrity, or has deep connections to the US media, which then makes it easier for the author to promote their book. Some of my nonfiction authors who reside in Asia and visit the US for work have hired US PR firms to promote their books. Sometimes this route works and sometimes it does not, as it is very specific to each book and each market.

Currency conversions are less of a problem, as there are many platforms to get monies from the US to other parts of the world these days.

It’s really wonderful that American publishers are not hesitant to work with authors residing outside of the US. For fiction, it’s never an issue, but with certain types of nonfiction it could be an issue purely because the author’s connection to the US is necessary to sell the book.

Carly Watters: I do actively take on clients who live in other countries but only if their primary market is for North American sales since I’m a North America-based agent. If the writer is UK-based with a book that is better suited to the UK market, it might be best for them to find a UK agent. There are no currency conversion issues (a lot of publisher payments are going digital—finally!) but there can be many tax forms to fill out.

The theme of many of my answers will be this: great books travel, great writing is the great equalizer and great writing opens doors. American publishers do need books that work for their market (US readers specifically)—publishing is a business—but amazing books by extremely talented authors will find fans domestically, and if economics, marketing, publicity and global trends collide, they’ll find international fans, too.

If the author is not based in the US, the American publisher isn’t going to pay to fly them over to do promotional events, bookstore launches (when we used to do those pre-Covid!) and such. These will be done remotely so authors do lose a bit of that on-the-ground connection with local booksellers, etc.

Describe how you handle foreign rights for your clients and the advantages to your agency’s approach. For example, does your agency have an active foreign rights department that regularly attends international book fairs, such as Frankfurt, London, and Bologna? Do you partner with co-agents in specific countries or territories? Or do you tend to grant world rights to the publisher?

PD: Great question! As you know, I am a solo agent, which means that I don’t have a rights department in-house. I personally handle all rights. I regularly attend the London Book Fair and the Jaipur Lit Fest to sell rights.

While agents and authors would love nothing more than seeing their books being published across the world in various languages, I have come to understand that not all books have legs to travel the world. The reasons for this are myriad, but if I must narrow it down, the metric is usually how successful sales were in the US coupled with thematic resonance of the book. Having said that, and of significance here, is to know that not every book that has sold successfully in the US will get multiple rights offers from other territories. The same holds true for other regions as well. Just because a book has high sales in one region, there is no guarantee that the book will travel to other regions. While this is discouraging to authors and agents, it is the reality of publishing.

I don’t have a carte blanche rule on granting world rights to publishers, and it’s more on a book-by-book basis. For some of my titles it makes more sense to grant world rights to publishers with a strong rights department team that attend many of the international rights conferences and fairs. In instances where a large publisher shows strong interest for world rights based on their outreach and excitement to take it to the world market, and where the author and I are confident of their approach, we grant world rights.

I also work closely with book scouts, and from time to time, with co-agents.

CW: We work with Taryn Fagerness Agency to sell our agency’s foreign rights. We consult with her every time we’re pitching a new project to work on a strategy for either retaining rights or selling them to the publisher and ask her what the benefits are for each strategy. Publishers are extremely bullish for all rights (translation and audio) right now so it’s a battle to retain them. I only grant world rights to the publisher if the deal is structured in a way that is beneficial to the author (lots of money to compensate for giving up those rights), or it looks like there won’t be many sales, if any, because the book is “too American” or it’s a lifestyle title that’s North America-specific and likely won’t travel anyway. If I grant world rights it’s often for children’s picture books and cookbooks because highly illustrated or photographed books are very expensive to produce and the business model for those really only works if the publisher has the rights (so they can sub-license or distribute them). The publisher also has all the files (graphic, illustrations, edited images) and that whole package stays together when a translation right is sold.

With publishing companies continuing to merge (Simon & Schuster and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are up for sale) and the bigger publishers acquiring many smaller publishers (there are too many of these to name from the last year), the big publishers think that their rights departments can handle selling the foreign rights and the reality is that they just can’t. They think their in-house rights team is automatically a selling feature, but it’s not. That in-house machine will always be used for the top few percent authors. If rights departments only have 30 minutes at Frankfurt Book Fair to talk about their titles, do you think they can cover everything on their list? They simply can’t. Things slip through the cracks. And as agents we want to prevent that. Everyone is in this business to make money, of course, and to acquire rights to sell them, but agents have their clients’ best interests at heart whereas publishers can treat them like commodities at times.

Do you sometimes broker deals for American clients with foreign publishers rather than with US publishers? If so, how likely is it that the book will eventually be published in the US? What circumstances are usually necessary for simultaneous publication whereby US and UK publishers, for example, release the book on the same date?

PD: Yes, I have brokered deals for American clients with foreign publishers rather than US publishers in the first instance. I have had fairly good success with eliciting US deals after I’ve sold rights in other territories.

Trying to get simultaneous publication across the Atlantic is always challenging since publishers work with different publication schedules and it’s really tough sometimes to match up publication dates.

The more worrisome problem with not being able to match publication dates is the issue of foreign editions “illegally” becoming available via Amazon and other online retailers in US markets before the US edition is available for sale. Pricing of books varies significantly in different territories and is usually much lower when published in Asia. When these editions become available in the US/UK market, it undercuts publishers in their own home markets. As you may know, anyone can be a retailer on Amazon and other online platforms, and these private parties acting as retailers sell books via the platform, disregarding publishing contracts. This is a serious problem for authors, agents and publishers since these private online retailers don’t honor publishing contracts that restrict sales to specific territories.

Over the years, I’ve lost out on opportunities with publishers in Europe and the US who love my projects but refrain from making offers for books that have been previously published in certain territories, as they simply cannot compete with the low priced books coming in from these territories. It’s especially tough for mid-sized and small/independent publishers for whom sales on Amazon and other online platforms are crucial to their business models as they mostly sell their books via online retailers rather than brick-and-mortar stores.

CW: For me, if I’m working with a Canadian client, it can be easier to do a Canadian deal for Canadian English rights and then sell the ROW (Rest of World) after either by separating all rights or selling ROW minus Canada to a US publisher. It’s all about who the primary market is, what the market value is, what’s best for this particular book and what’s best for the author’s brand and career. In order for a book to be published at the same time in multiple countries, it needs to be acquired very early with a publishing date that supports the global partnership (maybe Penguin Random House Canada and Penguin Random House US is a combination that knows how to work well together); that way the manuscript can go into production with both publishers’ editors’ notes and with lots of time to spare.

It’s a challenging situation because as an agent, you have to separate these rights from day one and submit the project with your definition of the open market very clear, with the hopes that you can go ahead and sell this project in translation. However, if you accidently or without paying attention don’t define the territory correctly (for example, “Commonwealth” means different things to different publishers) it’s nearly impossible to sell the rights elsewhere. We try to be as clear as possible from day one and redline the Schedule A with publishers very carefully. Sometimes editors will agree to things to get the deal moving or closed, and then you get the contract draft from the legal department and it does not incorporate what you agreed to in the deal stage. Agents are very important in this process!

In your experience, what determines if a book being published in the US can find an audience abroad? Does it depend mainly on the book’s main themes and if they are universal? The genre or category? The trends of certain markets and how closely they follow those of the US? Or is the publicity surrounding the book deal (or book launch) the biggest predictor of its success around the world?

PD: The good news is that books being published in the US usually have a higher chance of finding a global audience than the other way around since the US is the market-maker for books and media. Oftentimes, publishers and agents from other territories are more willing to consider books for their territories, if the book has been published in the US and has gotten good press and publicity. Fiction in all genres, and nonfiction that relates to health and the human condition (i.e., any themes that are universal to people the world over), garners the most interest from other parts of the world.

CW: It’s an alchemy of sorts. A big “deal story” (six figures, sold at auction, or major pre-empt) is a great starting point. Universal themes that travel are also key. Content that is offensive to other markets is something to consider avoiding. (It could be offensive due to religious preferences; for example, certain animals are sacred in certain markets, and the children’s book publishing industry knows all about being sensitive to that.) Overall, we never know what’s going to sell abroad. If we all knew then we’d have all clients as international bestsellers! Remember that every country also has their own experts, their own bestsellers and national treasures that they love. Especially in nonfiction, you can’t always crack certain markets no matter what you write. I have clients whose books have sold in over 20 territories and it’s amazing, but it’s a bit of a domino effect after a while; no one wants to be the country that misses out when something has sold in over 15 or 20 languages.

Finding a global audience also depends on factors that change as a career progresses. Many of the questions posed here are about one book, but having a career as an international bestselling author means that some of your books are going to hit in the foreign market and some books won’t. And they often aren’t acquired or even published in the same order as the US books (unless they’re part of a series). It’s a very complicated thing to manage the long-term success of an author domestically AND abroad. All markets are different. Just like I’m an expert in North America, there are co-agents on the ground in every territory that know their market, too, and spend a career growing and perfecting their knowledge of it.

How would you advise a novelist writing in English whose story takes place in their home country (whether it’s Canada, the UK, Australia, or India) but whose sensibility is, arguably, American? Would an American agent or publisher be the best fit? If the novel’s sensibility is more specific to the writer’s home country, is it better to explore publishing opportunities there?

PD: Getting published in and of itself is quite a feat, and therefore regardless of where an author is published, it’s an accomplishment. If a writer wants to be published in the US, then my advice would be to seek an agent based in the US, or a non-US agent who has deep connections in American publishing.

CW: The US market is the biggest in the world. The UK market is big too, but the US has the largest amount of readers. It has the biggest connection to TV/film rights, too. Ideally, you’d find an agent whose primary markets are the US and your home country (like myself! I specialize in the Canadian and the US markets and am very strategic about selling rights in North America for both my Canadian clients looking to expand into the US and US clients who have books that will do well in the Canadian market.).

Should writers who are self-publishing, or whose foreign rights have reverted back to them following traditional publication, focus on exporting the American edition of their book if they would like it to sell abroad? Can they assume that this would be easier than licensing translation rights to foreign publishers? Are there any cases in which they should search for a translator, oversee the translation, and then try to find a foreign publisher?

PD: This is a tough one! If the author wants to sell the English edition of the book, then the easiest and most economical way is to offer the print and ebook edition via Amazon or any other online portal that has a wide global reach. However, if the author wants the English edition translated into other languages, then it does become an expensive proposition because there is no guarantee that the translated book will sell in the markets it’s intended for. Truth be told, licensing translation rights is easiest when the US English edition of the work has garnered high sales and has had high visibility in the US.

CW: This is a tricky question because it’s so circumstantial. A self-published author who is a USA Today bestseller is in a different position than a self-published author selling 500 copies a year. I don’t work with a lot of self-published authors so this is not my area of expertise, but they should not search for a translator. If you do not speak the language you want your book translated into, you won’t know how good the translator is. Foreign publishers like to hire their own translators that they know and like.

Generally speaking, should authors expect smaller advances from foreign publishers than from American publishers? Less marketing and fewer sales? Or are there certain foreign book publishers that are comparable to American publishers, especially if they are part of the same global company (Penguin Random House US and Penguin Random House Canada, Bloomsbury USA and Bloomsbury UK, etc.)?

PD: I am going to make a broad generalization here and state that traditional American publishers pay bullish advances when compared to other territories. America has the largest reading market in the world and American book readers are champions of authors and the book industry, as they are always willing to purchase books and take chances on debut authors. Having said that, there are also several European publishers in various territories that also offer bullish advances to authors since they too have a large reading population who are willing to spend money on books.

CW: The American market is the biggest book market in the world. Second is the UK. From a purely economical point of view there isn’t a way for a major Scandinavian publisher to offer the same advance as a major US publisher. A bestseller in Denmark moves a few hundred copies in a week whereas a bestseller in the US, tens of thousands of copies in a week.

The Canadian market can be lucrative and it’s worth separating Canadian rights at times. If the author is Canadian (even if their book is more “American”) an agent should try to sell Canadian rights separately. There are many possible scenarios and the agent needs to be careful from the beginning how they define the rights they’re selling. Another possibility is that the agent could grant World English rights, so the US publisher can potentially sell UK rights through their in-house rights department, while translation rights are reserved by the author to be sold by the agent separately at a later date.

Do you have any other advice for writers who want to better understand and break into the international book market?

PD: Educating yourself about the complexities and intricacies of breaking into the international market is key.  There are many excellent resources available for free on the internet that shed light on international rights markets. If you can afford to subscribe to platforms such as Publishers Marketplace in the US and The Bookseller in the UK, that would help greatly, too. Best of luck with your work!

CW: Read Publishing Trends, read about Frankfurt Book Fair, London Book Fair, Bologna Book Fair, and Book Expo. It’s a very specific part of the business. Foreign rights, co-agents, and scouts are so important to an author’s long-term financial success! It takes a village to become an international bestseller. Check out what books are selling in 20–30 countries and buy them. Get a Publishers Marketplace subscription and read the foreign deals.

Priya Doraswamy (@lotuslit) founded Lotus Lane Literary in 2013. Her love for books, people, and background in law makes her career as a literary agent the perfect fit for her passions and talents. She enjoys working with publishers and writers from around the world. Although physically in the EST, her work hours are zone-free. She does admit to occasionally losing track of time zones and waking a writer with an early morning phone call. Priya has been an agent for several years and has sold several books worldwide. She is drawn to all genres of fiction and nonfiction. Prior to her agency career, she was a practicing lawyer in the United States.

Carly Watters (@carlywatters) has a BA in English Literature from Queen’s University and a MA in Publishing Studies from City University London. Her masters thesis was on the social, political, and economic impact of literary prizes on trade publishing. She began her publishing career in London as an assistant at the Darley Anderson Literary, TV and Film
Agency. Since joining the Toronto-based P.S. Literary Agency in 2010 she has become a Senior VP, Senior Literary Agent, and Director of Literary Branding. Carly represents award-winning and bestselling authors in the adult fiction and nonfiction categories. She is known for her long-term vision for her authors and being an excellent collaborator with a nose for commercial success. She has close ties to publishers in the major markets and works directly with film agents to option film and TV rights to leading networks and production companies. Find out more on Twitter, Instagram, the P.S. Literary website, or at Carly’s personal website.

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