Drinks at the Algonquin followed by an evening of jazz; an all-day tour of Taipei; helping a client's translator whose copy of Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything was stolen from her taxi in Jakarta: such is the life of a foreign rights manager—or at least this one. If these activities sound interesting and fun, they are. Even better, they're good for business.
Selling foreign rights offers a rare business opportunity: the ability to boost sales by partying more, not less. I know this sounds odd, but that's only because American business culture is, well, all about business. Overseas they work hard, but having fun is part of the job. Cultivating relationships with overseas publishers and sub-agents is just one example of the cultural awareness that's necessary—but often lacking—on the part of American publishers. There's a lot of money to be made in the international rights market, but you can't assume that everyone does business the American way.
To join the party, first recognize that the American emphasis on contracts and litigation is unique. To Americans, the contract isn't everything; it's the only thing. Overseas, the relationship is everything; a contract is treated as a memo to clarify an agreement within the relationship. Unfortunately, too few American agents and publishers understand this.
Following several drinks well into many evenings over the years, numerous sub-agents and publishers have complained to me that the Ugly American stereotype is alive and well. E-mails tend to go in one direction, as sub-agents repeatedly ask about rights availability. Agents, more so than publishers, demand advances far above standard rates, unrealistic for local markets, and without justification. And many agents couldn't pass a high school geography test.
Jane Vejjajiva owns Thailand's second-largest rights agency, Silkroad Publisher Agency, and she relates a typical anecdote: "Recently I e-mailed one publisher about the availability of Thai rights. I got a reply that said the rights for Taiwan had already been sold. I wrote back and said that Taiwan and Thailand are 2,000 miles apart. We never did a deal."
The owner of a major Japanese rights agency keeps a list of rude agents whom he won't make an effort to sell for, and New Yorkers are the worst, he says. And forget the stuffy British stereotype: more sub-agents tell me they're steering business to U.K. publishers and agents because they're friendlier. Foreigners can shift business because they're building lists, not just buying individual titles. Each category can cover thousands of books, so if a publisher can't get Title A in New York, it'll seek out Title B in London. This means you need to focus on building relationships or risk forfeiting sales.
So when you're approached by a foreign publisher who can communicate in English, don't rush to shunt the query onto a sub-agent who will take 10% and all the fun. Trust me: often you can handle it yourself. Foreign rights typically involve standard contracts and advances. The standard advance (excluding bestsellers that command auctions, when it's best to use a sub-agent) is a simple formula: (foreign list price) x (anticipated press run) x (royalty rate) x 75%. Royalties are about half of the author's rate for the original rights, typically 5%—7%, since the foreign publisher must pay a translator, and the contract runs for five years.
Use boilerplate agreements from contract books, because unless you're Microsoft, you can't afford to sue or collect damages from a foreign publisher if things go badly. The American legalistic approach of treating everyone with suspicion while committing everything to paper is ineffective here; a piece of paper won't keep a crook from stealing, and it won't make an honest publisher any more honest.
And as you develop these relationships, you'll also strengthen ties with your authors, because they love to get published overseas.
There are a lot of nice people in the world. Focusing more on them and less on paperwork can offer greater rewards than you ever could have imagined.
|Paul Bradley is a foreign rights manager at Jed Mattes Inc. and co-owner of Cyberfish Media Co. Ltd., based in Thailand.|