Andromeda: Foreign Rights-One Part of the Changing Book Market

Eowyn’s Ivey The Snow Child and Andromeda Romano-Lax’s The Spanish Bow: Alaska books that have found their way into foreign markets.

Why might I need an agent? Because the book market becomes more complicated every day, and various rights—from electronic to foreign—need to be handled with care. I’ll be teaching a three-hour clinic, called “Agents: What You Need To Know,” on Feb. 11, Saturday, 1-4. (That morning, Debbie LaFleiche will be teaching a clinic on Getting Published, making it an all-day opportunity for learning about the business side of writing.) One of the many topics I’ll cover are foreign rights, an exciting opportunity that is gaining importance for more Alaska writers, who are starting to see their books published in translated editions.

Today, I’m filling out some IRS paperwork to ensure I don’t overpay on foreign taxes for foreign editions of my novels. I’m glad to have the help of an agent, or I wouldn’t know how to fill out these forms—and probably wouldn’t even know they exist. Most likely, I wouldn’t need them in the first place, because without an agent, I’d be published in only one country, at most, instead of a dozen.

Some of those deals were very small, but they’ve extended my reach as a novelist. Lately, it seems that most visitors to my blog are from places like Argentina, the Philippines, or Taiwan. Cumulatively, these little deals add up. My second novel isn’t out yet, but already, my advances from two foreign editions, Australia and Poland, have surpassed the modest advance I received in the U.S. With my first novel, I earned twice as much abroad as at home.

The publishing world has changed, as we all know. (Today, when we were talking about print runs, my editor told me that about half of her company’s book copies are sold in e-book form. I would have guessed 10 or 20 percent, but 50? We ignore that fact at our peril.)

The rapidly changing global book market, less talked about, is just as important for a writer to understand. About ten years ago, I met Alaska author Lynn Schooler at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, and I remember marveling at the fact that his The Blue Bear had been translated into Italian. Schooler was humble about his international status, as was internationally-renowned Alaska author Velma Wallis before him. But I was hugely impressed, and confused: How the heck does that happen?

Ten years later, globalization has picked up the pace, and it runs both ways. Ever heard of Girl With a Dragon Tattoo?

Palmer author Eowyn Ivey has a first novel coming out in February. The Snow Child has already appeared abroad, and Ivey’s website shows images of six gorgeous covers, with more to come. Anchorage novelist Don Rearden recently tweeted about an Australian book deal for his first novel, The Raven’s Gift.

According to the New York Times, “These days… the sale of foreign rights to American books – a sleepy backwater of publishing a decade ago – has become a fiercely competitive area. … now, foreign sales often represent as much as a third of the revenues for the rights to publish leading American authors.” That article ran twenty years ago. I’m still searching for numbers reflecting what portion of authors’ revenues are coming from foreign editions today.

When an author sells a book to a publisher, that publisher may retain world rights and use its own connections to sell them; the earnings get rolled into the author’s original advance, helping the publisher earn back some of what it spent, sometimes before the U.S. book is released. Or an agent may decide to hold onto those rights, and sell them herself, often traveling to world book fairs (the most famous is in Frankfurt) to make the pitch. Some agents excel at this; some don’t. The agent nearly always gets help from subagents in each foreign country being approached. That means that a novelist now has not one agent, but many—each getting their cut, each generating emails and paperwork and a web of relationships. It’s complicated, which is why that original agent’s organizational role is even more important. He will decide what rights get sold, which are kept, how hard to push in the foreign markets, and hopefully, he’ll keep track of all those advances coming and going (often, in different currencies) and make sure that an author really does get paid for some bargain paperback printed in Russia, for example.

Sound exciting? It is. Sound hard to manage as an unagented or self-published author? Indeed. We’ll talk about that on Feb. 11. In the meanwhile, do you know of other Alaska authors with foreign editions, or have you recently read a translated novel that might not have found its way into your hands just a few years ago? (One of my favorites was Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses.) Let us know.
Scroll to Top