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 Amazon.com, then slowly in the others (Amazon.uk, .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.

Posted in Guest Post, Marketing & Promotion, Publishing Industry and tagged , , , , , , .
Orna Ross and Helen Sedwick

Orna Ross and Helen Sedwick

Orna Ross is a bestselling Irish author living in London. She writes novels, poems and nonfiction, and her Go Creative blog teaches methods of applying the creative process to all aspects of life. Orna has enjoyed independent self-publishing and publication by Attic Press and Penguin. Helen Sedwick is a business lawyer with 30 years of experience assisting clients in setting up and running their businesses legally and successfully. Her clients include entrepreneurs such as wineries, green toy makers, software engineers, and writers. She is the author of Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook.

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18 Comments on "Selling Your Books Internationally"

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[…] Helen Sedwick and Orna Ross discuss selling international rights to your book.  […]

Jane Steen
Fantastic, solid advice that makes me proud to be an ALLi member (I will be downloading my free copy today!) The only remark I would like to make is that you encourage indie authors to start thinking about rights early. With only two books out, I’m certainly thinking about them and learning as much as I can. But my strategy is long-term, and I don’t intend to start tackling foreign rights until my books are selling well on the “easy” markets (US and UK). When I had one book only, I didn’t even worry much about marketing on those markets!… Read more »
Orna Ross

Thanks jane for popping by and so glad you found the post interesting. Selling rights is indeed something to think about early (ensuring that you don’t let go rights inadvertently that you may want to exploit later) but something to do later on, when the book(s) are already doing well in your primary territory. Hope to catch you at one of those book fairs!

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[…] Selling Your Books Internationally by rosario fiore | via Flickr Note from Jane: Today’s post is an excerpt from the newly released How Authors Sell Publishing Rights by Helen Sedwick (@HelenSedwick) and Orna Ross (@OrnaRoss). When it comes to selling your work overseas, there are two channels: Licensing your English-language or translation rights to traditional publishers located abroad 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… Read more »
Ernie Zelinski
You say: “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.” This is not true. Under “Selling Foreign Rights Without an Agent”, you say: “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… Read more »
Orna Ross
Hi Ernie, I agree with you and at ALLi we know lots of other authors who have done what you have done…and cite some of them in the book. I think the way it is written in this summary post is the result of it being an excerpt — some paragraphs being cut. What they talk about (in the book) is how authors are happy to take smaller deals that don’t make financial sense for an agent. It’s if you want to make big international deals with simultaneous branding across many territories at once then an agent becomes useful. We’ll… Read more »
Kathryn Goldman

Congratulations on your international sales track record, Ernie. You’ve been at this for a while now. How did you do it? There are many authors looking for strategies on how to license their rights (or sell their books) internationally. This post (and Helen and Orna’s book) is offering guidance to individuals who want to get started attaining the “success and prosperity in the book business” for themselves. Foreign rights can be impenetrable for those not familiar with how they work. Words of wisdom from those who have actually managed foreign rights can be very helpful.

Ernie Zelinski
Kathryn: I am kinda too busy now to share some of my own crazy techniques and strategies. Nonetheless, I can share this with authors who want to sell the foreign rights to their books. Recently I was doing some research and came across this very interesting article, “How to Sell $40,000 in Foreign Rights”, in which John Kremer interviews John Penberthy on how Penberthy sold $40,000 worth of foreign rights. Some of his techniques are similar to mine although I have several others. http://bookmarketingbestsellers.com/how-to-sell-40000-in-foreign-rights-by-john-penberthy/ There is also some useful information in the following Huffington Post article, “Foreign Rights: How Authors… Read more »
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[…] Selling Your Books Internationally (Jane Friedman) When it comes to selling your work overseas, there are two channels: licensing your English-language or translation rights to traditional publishers located abroad, and 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. […]

Cat Michaels

I always wondered….now I know-:D. Thanks!

M2Comms | public relations company philippines

English books definitely have an advantage since most countries are english-speaking countries but having a great translator can also be helpful in marketing your book to foreign countries. And thanks to globalization, it is now easier to get your book out there without undergoing a strenuous process. But having an agent still won’t hurt especially if you don’t want to lose control over your book. I’m sure a lot of writers as well as book agents will benefit from your article!

Victor Grauer
Thanks for a very readable and informative post. My story is a bit different, however. Some years ago I self published a fairly esoteric book (on world music and cultural evolution) via CreateSpace. I received some very positive responses and reviews from a few enthusiastic readers with a strong interest in my topic, but sales were always sparse — to say the least. Then out of the blue, an extremely enthusiastic Italian musicologist recommended my book to an Italian publisher, and they actually contacted me, expressing an interest in publishing a translation. Then, shortly after they had informed me that… Read more »
Emeonye chidiebere Rex

Pls I’m a writer and presently I want to sell my rights both local and international to an agent outrightly. But I’m stuck….. Should I terminate my contract with my publisher before I go ahead or should I just sell the rights without my publisher knowing. Besides I want to know if after selling my rights, will the book still be published with my name?
What actually are the benefits and pitfalls?

Orna Ross

You must always inform your publisher, Emeonye. You will need to analyse your contract with them.

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[…] Selling Your Books Internationally […]

Jamie Hill
Great advice ! I joined a publishing start up in China by the name of http://fiberead.com/ They handle everything including translation, promotion, listing on all the various sites, keep check of of sales and for free ( the royalty split heavily in their favour ) It can be a bit of a slow burner from uploading your original manuscript through to the final translation being completed but you will get there in the end, it was an overall quicker process on my 2nd book that I uploaded compared to the 1st attempt. The royalty split is normally 70/30 in their… Read more »
Melissa Lerner
I am a new author and was recently ‘ discovered’ by BookWhirl,who wants to market me at a Book fair that will be held somewhere in Europe( I believe in Germany). The publisher at BookWhirl believes in my writing,says her company had been following my writing for some time and wanted me to send her a manuscript. I put together a collection of stores,named it ‘ Recovery Stories’,based on my first year of sobriety. She told me, that BW would be sending reps there to try to sell me and my one ,possibly two books to both International and The… Read more »
Jane Friedman

No, I don’t think you should pay BookWhirl to market you at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I explain more here in this post about BookExpo (the reasons you shouldn’t pay are the same, regardless of the industry show).

https://janefriedman.com/dont-pay-for-bea/

Keep in mind that BookWhirl is a self-publishing service, and they make money primarily from the fees that authors pay them.

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