Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A love letter to books that aren't exactly mine (or, why I love foreign rights)

I am not this book’s domestic agent. But I have known it since before it was a capital-B Book, and yes, every time I see it in a bookstore I smile and turn it face out. Every time I see someone reading it on the subway I want to shout, “THAT’S OUR BOOK!”, but I don’t, because 1) people don’t take kindly to shouting on the subway and 2) how would I explain to a subway passenger that I handle foreign rights to the book they’re reading?

I’ve known this book since before it was a gleam in its editor’s eye. One of my amazing colleagues came down to the back corner office, where the two Foreign Rights People live, and said, “I’m about to send out this incredible manuscript and I want to know what you FRPs think of it.” And I read it, as did my colleague, and we fell in love with it. We thought about the territories where it might sell, based on the genre, the premise, the writing. (“Germany and Brazil, for sure, probably France, Scandinavia…”) The agent asked us what we thought the UK potential was and how hard she should fight to keep those rights. She asked how much we thought we could get for the book in translation. And we crunched numbers and looked at our spreadsheets and gave her our estimate (“Not more than X here, around X here, probably a total of X across Eastern Europe over the next few years…). And she took that into account when she negotiated the US deal.

When the agent sold World English rights (meaning, she retained translation rights), we rejoiced! And we added this book to our foreign rights list, which is a guide to the books for which we have UK and/or translation rights. Each book has its own page with a synopsis, author bio, and other information that helps us pitch it to editors around the world. (I’m so fiercely protective of this list that I fear for my future children.) This book’s page would eventually showcase the great reviews and awards it received, as well as its many foreign sales. It’s been exciting to watch the page—and the list of foreign deals we’ve negotiated—grow.

We thought carefully about the timing of sending this book out into the world. We had conversations with its agent: What changes do you think the editor will want made? How closely will the manuscript you sold resemble the final book? We strategized about which version of the manuscript to submit, and how we would describe this manuscript to our co-agents, the literary agents who work with us in different territories. (We write a completely new pitch letter for each book. Books get a lot of pitch letters over their lifetimes.) Should we send it to scouts? Which ones?

I have boarded planes to pitch this book in three different countries. I’ve spent time practicing my pitch and reworking it for editors in different territories (in some, I’ll lead with impressive sales figures and awards; in others, I might start with a more personal, heartfelt approach). I’ve pitched this book as often as once every thirty minutes during eight-hour days at international book fairs. It’s made me tear up in front of total strangers. I love it so much that it’s easy to pitch.

I’ve checked my iPhone at 4am and discovered a foreign offer for this book that left me wide awake and ready to negotiate. (This happens frequently in foreign, what with time differences. If you think you might want to work in this part of publishing, you’d better be an early bird.) We’ve had this book sell at auction in some territories. I’ve loved seeing each foreign cover revealed. And my colleague and I have had the thrill of calling or emailing this book’s domestic agent with all the good news.

So even though I am not this book’s domestic agent, I feel especially close to it. It’s ours—all of ours—and it now it belongs to a global readership, too. And I love being part of the process that makes that happen. 


  1. Hi Molly,

    It's great to get your insight into this part of the business. So naturally: questions :)

    I'd love to hear what the international personalities are. You mentioned "Germany and Brazil, for sure." Was that an incidental example? Or do tastes really coincide there? Can you generalise a country's preferences, or do you work more from a feeling born of experience? Do you often feel like a prospector?

    Following on, to what extent do your calculations influence a domestic book deal? I assume publishing houses have their own people crunching those numbers. So can we add shrewd, cold war operative to your resumé?

    And what happens when a foreign cover is wayyy nicer than the domestic? Swell of pride, regretful sting, or both, or something else?

    Looking forward to your future posts.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Germany and Brazil are both very active markets in translation; sometimes their tastes do coincide. We can generalize about a territory's preferences to some extent, based on their culture, current economic situation, and the titles that have worked well there in the past. It's about years of experience but also about keeping abreast of global trends.

      I'm afraid I can't speak to your second question since it would involve speaking on behalf of other agents, but I'll take "shrewd."

      Lastly, "nice" is all relative. There are some territories that produce especially great covers, though. Turkey is a favorite for me. Thanks for stopping by!

    2. Thank you for your answers.

      Would you consider a comparative cover post or series at some point? (If that's possible, of course.)

      Thanks again!

  2. So enjoyed this post! I hadn't considered book sales from this perspective before.

  3. Whoa. That was FASCINATING. Thank you so much - I feel like we don't get to frequent the world of foreign rights often.

  4. Molly, you're my dream agent! Loved this post:).