Selling Your Books Internationally

An antique world map.
by rosario fiore | via Flickr

Note from Jane: Today’s post is an excerpt from the newly released How Authors Sell Publishing Rights, a new guidebook from the Alliance of Independent Authors, by Helen Sedwick (@HelenSedwick) and Orna Ross (@OrnaRoss).

When it comes to selling your work overseas, there are two channels:

  1. Licensing your English-language or translation rights to traditional publishers located abroad
  2. Selling your book in English and/or translation directly through online retailers or local distributors.

This second option is providing great opportunities for indie authors. For some books, sales from international licensing dwarfs sales of the original English editions.

For example, David Vann is one of the most accomplished US authors you’ve never heard of. His award-winning works have been translated into nearly twenty languages, and he’s a former Guggenheim Fellow and Stegner Fellow. Even though his books are published by a major publisher, he receives more attention and more sales abroad. He claims he’s sold more copies of his books in Barcelona than in the entire US.

Not long ago, selling rights internationally required a network of agents, publishers, translators, and distributors, and it was almost impossible for independent authors to break into the market. But social media, email, online licensing and retail platforms, and advances in technology have made exploiting international rights easier than ever for all publishers, including author-publishers. Writers can now engage with licensees and readers all over the world without leaving their desks.

Why English Books Have a Leg Up

When it comes to global sales, books in English are at an advantage. English is spoken as a first language by around 375 million people and as a second language by an additional 375 million people. Around 750 million people speak English as a foreign language (where English is not spoken as a first or second language). One out of four of the world’s population speaks English to some level of competence, and demand from the other three-quarters is increasing.

Opportunities to sell rights vary by market, and authors should consider researching foreign rights early in the self-publishing process. “There are some markets, like other English-language markets outside of the US, [where] you might have demands to publish even before you self-publish in the US,” says Seth Dellon of PubMatch.

Licensing and selling books in translation is more complicated. It requires a greater investment of time and money and relies on the creative talents of professional translators.

“It’s important to understand that the translation markets are each as tough to crack as home English-language markets,” says Jennifer Custer, Rights Director at AM Heath. “Translation itself can cost many thousands of dollars/euros, and so publishers have an extra financial dimension to their calculations. Each market comes with its own difficulties, and the economic crisis is biting—trade book sales are down, and publishers are cutting their lists and have less money to invest in translation and marketing.”

No matter which route you take, keep in mind that marketing is key to success. “Marketing your book to readers is really important, but what’s equally important is marketing your book to the industry,” Dellon adds. “Whether that’s rights buyers and publishers around the world, or even librarians and booksellers, there are other groups besides readers that it’s really important to reach.”

However, before you launch your international publishing career, you need to make sure you still hold your international publishing and translation rights.

Do You Own Your International Rights?

Surprisingly, many traditionally and independently published authors do not know the status of their international and translation rights. In fact, when IPR License quizzed a cross-section of published and aspiring authors, they found:

  • Almost half of authors (47 percent) admitted they did not know or were unsure if they owned the world rights to their book.
  • Only 13 percent of respondents had licensed their work to an overseas publisher, representing a potentially huge opportunity missed.
  • 28 percent of authors didn’t know when they did or didn’t have rights to license.
  • Many published writers surveyed are not quite sure if they still own their own world rights or not.

Traditionally published authors need to look carefully at their book contracts to see what they own and what they have licensed away. If you are represented by an agent or attorney, ask for their review and interpretation. And, if considering a trade-publishing contract, always look closely at the rights clauses and consider the rights potential of that particular book or series and your own ability to trade those rights separately.

If you are publishing independently, then check the publishing or services agreement of your self-publishing service company or POD provider. Tom Chalmers, the founder and director of the rights management service IPR License, noted that “authors far too easily just check ‘world rights’—all languages—and pass them over.” If you have signed on with a SPSC that has taken an exclusive, worldwide license to your work in all languages and all formats, then figure out how to terminate that agreement before you launch your book internationally.

Don’t assume no one will care if you start selling your book in France in violation of an existing agreement. If your book is successful, then trust us, they will care.

Should You Grant Your Publisher a License for Your International Rights?

Suppose a traditional publisher wants to license your international publishing rights along with domestic rights. You’re delighted, of course. Surely this demonstrates their faith in your work? Not necessarily—the publisher wants to make sure that if your book sells well, it will control all of the distribution and marketing (and profits) in every country.

There is nothing wrong with granting a trade publisher international and translation rights, so long as the publisher has the wherewithal and intent to exploit those rights successfully. So before you sign these rights away, consider the following:

  • How big is the publishing house? Size will usually have an impact on its ability to invest in translating and marketing your book.
  • Does the publisher have the connections in other territories to have your book expertly translated?
  • What is the publisher’s track record in the international market?
  • In what format does it intend to circulate your book in each territory? Digital, print, audio, film, others?
  • What languages? Which countries?
  • How and when will the license end? Is it forever or only a few years? When will rights and translation revert fully and completely to you?
  • Do they have a plan for your book, and do they seem intent on pursuing it to the fullest?

You will need to be comfortable with the answers to all of the above before signing.

Selling Foreign Rights Without an Agent

The popular self-publishing guru, Dean Wesley Smith, recommends a DIY approach, cutting out the agent to contact the overseas publishers yourself.

“If your agent in a big agency wants to try to sell your books overseas, they give it to the dedicated foreign agent (who you likely don’t know), who then either shops it or gives it to yet another agent (who you certainly don’t know and didn’t hire). If you want to be an internationally selling fiction writer, take control of this aspect of your career as well as home market. My wife sold her last few books overseas on her own completely from start to end. On another, she sold it but brought her agent in to help with the deal.”

In order to do this, you will need to become an expert in foreign rights, getting to know a wide variety of agents, sub-agents and publishers in a number of territories. Traveling to large international rights fairs at least twice a year (e.g., Frankfurt Book Fair or London Book Fair) becomes essential to get direct contact with foreign publishers and sub-agents.

To maximize your presence in overseas Kindle stores, set up an Author Central account on country-specific Amazon sites, where possible, such as:

If you are selling your books only in English, set up your bio and book information in English. If you have a foreign translated version, use that language in that foreign online site instead.

Other companies like Apple and Kobo are also aggressively pushing into overseas markets. Kobo has teamed with booksellers throughout the world—e.g. British book chain WH Smith and French chain Fnac—as an exclusive e-book partner.

Pricing and Promoting in Overseas Territories

Marketing, promotion and enhancing discoverability are always the most challenging aspects of publishing, and these are even more challenging in an overseas environment. A key factor to consider is pricing.

“Setting an optimal e-book retail price for each country will always be a challenge,” says publishing consultant Thad McElroy. “Various indices offer different guidance for assessing prices abroad. Often mentioned is the Economist’s Big Mac Index, measuring the price of a McDonald’s Big Mac in countries around the world. Launched half in jest in 1986, the index has become a useful guide to understanding purchasing parity worldwide. Using the index, a publisher would determine that an e-book retailing for $9.99 in the US should be priced at $7.49 in the Czech Republic, $4.99 in Indonesia and $3.49 in India (using standard e-book price points in US dollars).”

Having a free book is a good way to be discovered in overseas stores. You can do this on Kindle by being part of KDP Select or, if you offer a book free through other stores, Amazon will eventually price match. This will happen first at, then slowly in the others (, .de, .es, etc) over time.

The cover to How Authors Sell Publishing Rights by Helen Sedwick and Orna RossAuthor Lindsay Buroker has blogged about making that strategy work for her: “It’s taken a while for the free e-books to percolate through, showing up in the international Apple stores, but I’m now … making between $1,500 and $2,000/month overall in overseas sales. … If I tried to target each of these countries individually through forums or paid sponsorships, it’d be a tall order.”

Many other authors agree—but remember it’s not an overnight process and you should be clear about the value and pulling power of the book you are going to offer as your “discovery vehicle.” Like all permafree strategies, this one works best if the book is the first in a series.

For more about selling international rights, check out How Authors Sell Publishing Rights by Helen Sedwick and Orna Ross, or visit the website for the Alliance of Independent Authors.

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