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The Ins and Outs of Rights Deals



There are many book fairs that take place globally each year. The most notable? Frankfurt Book Fair, which takes place in October, and the London Book Fair, usually in spring.


The ultimate aim of these fairs is to sow the seeds of a book deal in territories where you haven’t yet sold your rights. This is exciting for us authors as it means there's potential we might see our books published in another country, which in turn means gorgeous new covers and lovely new emails from readers around the world! And, of course, the chance for extra streams of income.


So what are the ins and outs of rights deals? Let’s delve in…


Do I even have rights to sell?


To find out, look at your contract with your publisher. So if you’re a UK author, that could be a UK & Commonwealth deal, World English Language or World All Languages.


If it’s a UK & Commonwealth deal, that means you’ve retained a lot of rights, meaning you or your agent can negotiate deals around the world in different languages, including English in territories like the US.


If your deal is World English Language, while your publisher will have the rights to any English language editions of your novel (eg, US), you will have retained the translation rights so could get translation deals overseas in different languages.


If you have a World All Language deal, you’ve handed all your rights over. Your experience will depend which publisher you're with. Some will have a great dedicated rights team, others will just let your rights sink without a trace.


What kind of advance can I get if my rights are sold overseas?


Advances can range from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands. The smallest deal I got was three figures. The biggest deal I got was a good five figures.


How much will I see of that advance?


If your agent has negotiated a deal, then they will need to take their commission for their work, usually 20% (the standard for US, translation and film rights).


If your publisher sells rights, your share of the advance from those deals will firstly go towards earning out the advance they paid you. Once that’s earned out, your share will be paid to you, with your publisher taking 15%-25%, and your agency taking their commission too.


It's usually recommended you try to retain as many rights as you can because some (maybe most?) publishers just don't do much at all with all the rights they have. This is changing though so have a chat to see what your publisher does with its rights. If you have an agent, this is something they can advise on. Sometimes it's hard to turn a worldwide rights deals down though, especially with the larger publishers who will offer World All Language or nothing. So it’s something you need to consider and discuss with your agent if you have one before you accept an offer.


If you don't have an agent, contact the publisher's other authors to learn about their experiences when it comes to world rights. Ask the offering publisher pertinent questions too: do they have a rights team? Will they do all they can to sell your worldwide rights? Will your book be taken to the main book fairs? Can they point you in the direction of one of their authors who did really well when it came to those world rights?


On top of all of this, you have to think about taxes. It’s a complicated beast and there are many considerations to take into account when it comes to overseas tax. But an agent or your publisher's rights team should do their best to help you navigate all that!


Some of my translated books!

What about royalties if I earn my advance out?


Your share of royalties for print editions will usually be lower than what you are used to. For example, you could get as low as 5% on trade edition royalties. But often, these deals will be negotiated in a way that the more books you sell in that country, the higher that percentage gets.


Ebook royalty share tends to be the same as what you’re used to: 25-35%. Like here in the UK, there are some publishers who follow a low advance / high royalty model, especially in the US (having said that, digital publishers are wanting at least World English rights more and more so you might not have US rights to sell).


I don’t have an agent. Can I sell my rights to overseas territories?


Sure, you can submit to publishers if they take direct submissions. But this becomes difficult when there are other languages involved. Do you speak that language? Do you know the laws of that country so you can expertly glance over the contracts? What about tax issues in those countries? For me, this is one of the many reasons why agents are an essential part of the process, presuming the agent you have has a solid track record in selling translations rights. Sure, some publishers will have a great rights team who can help you with this but not always.


If you’ve already got a deal in your home country yourself, then you might find an agent willing to help with translation deals. But it can be tough to find one who will only deal with this side of the business.


What happens if my book is ‘taken’ to a fair?


I asked Thérèse Coen, the rights director at my agency Hardman & Swainson, about this. She said:


'The main focus of fairs like the Frankfurt Book Fair are an opportunity for agents to meet new editors, and to catch up with editors they already share authors with. They’re a great chance for agents in particular to get a sense of a publisher’s plans, plus what is and what isn’t doing well in certain markets. While there is still plenty of pitching going on for existing and future submissions, deals nowadays are rarely made at the actual fair. ‘Hot new debuts’ for example will usually sell before and after the fair.'


If your book is featured in some way, first it will appear in your agent or publisher’s rights guide, a magazine-type guide to all the rights they’re selling. Your representative, whether that be your agent, your agent’s rights director, an agency dedicated to selling translation rights or your publisher, will then attend a series of thirty-minute meetings.


Thérèse gave me a great insight into these meetings:


‘We fill our schedules from Tuesday to Friday with back-to-back meetings. If we’re meeting an editor we’ve not met before, they will talk us through their list, tell us what kind of books they publish, what has been working well for them and what kind of books they are looking to buy. We will then pitch the books to them which we think could be suitable for their lists.


We will meet with editors who publish all sorts of genres so will be pushing the books which we think will work for them. There’s no point pushing a successful romcom to an editor who focuses on crime. So really, our job is to tailor our meetings to make sure we pitch the right books to the right editors.


If we know the editor we are meeting already, then we might catch up on publication plans for existing shared authors, talk about books we’ve already submitted to them and get their feedback on those. They will also tell us which books or genres have or haven’t been working in their country, and what they have been buying.’


How long after a fair will I hear if I’ve got a deal?


Deals can happen any time of the year, regardless of book fairs. But Thérèse did give some insight into what happens after the fair: ‘We submit books to editors in the form of pdfs (or occasionally hard copies) along with any other useful information, such as reviews, sales figures, author bio, prize wins and so on. The hope is that all this work will then lead to an offer from the publisher. It can take days, weeks, months or even years to hear back from editors proving book fairs are really just the sowing of the seeds.’


It's true! My second novel My Sister’s Secret was taken to fairs before it published, some nearlys but no bites. Then it hit the number one spot on Kindle, and sold really well, giving my agent a selling point at FBF that October. A few days later, I got an offer from Germany and then one from Italy, with even more since including a Portuguese deal over two years later.


Is there any way I can improve my chances of getting a deal?


The same as any deal really: write a bloody good book and don’t put editors off with any nasty skeletons in the Google closet (by that, I mean no politically incorrect blog posts and so on). Good sales figures, endorsements, positive reviews, and winning prizes all help.


But even these can’t guarantee deals overseas. In fact, I know some amazing novels which haven’t had much luck getting deals abroad, even ones that have attracted big advances and sales in their home territories. Some of my novels haven't had any overseas deals! It’ a strange old business.


It doesn’t harm to be proactive with your agent or your publisher's rights team though. If your novel sells really well or you’ve won a prize, for example, it’s certainly worth asking them if they’re going to use that fact to chase editors or pitch your novel to overseas editors.


Thérèse has some advice on this: ‘It’s important to see it in this way: translation rights is a bonus, it’s a wonderful thing to have and a lovely surprise when it comes through, but given the slightly random nature of it, it’s not worth beating yourself up if you don’t get a translation deal.’


This is so true. It’s always a lovely surprise when I get an email from Thérèse, not just because she’s a lovely person but it might mean news of a new deal I never expected. So the seeds may be sown at the fairs, but it could be a while before you see them grow into beautiful fragrant deals!

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