Clark, a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and panelist at PW’s upcoming Global Kids Connect Summit, shared her thoughts on which U.S. children’s titles seem to be selling well abroad, the biggest mistakes publishers make in selling foreign rights, and how she thinks the business will change in the next five years.
There tends to be a lot of crossover between the U.K. and American book markets; they are, after all, two of the biggest English language markets in the world. That being said, are there types of books that tend to be “too American” for the U.K. market?
There are certain kinds of topics that won’t work—American sports, like hockey and basketball, won’t sell in the U.K. Historical periods that are very “American” won’t work, either—something focusing on the labor struggles of the early 1900s, for instance. But it’s surprising how many books, both middle grade and young adult, will work in the U.K. with the right house. I sold a middle grade historical that featured a girl living with a traveling circus to a publisher in London several years ago and it has done very well. I’ve sold young adult contemporary, fantasy of all kinds, SF, historical, really anything. A book can come off as “very American” and it can somehow be the kind of “very American” that a London house is looking for.
Most major American bestsellers get picked up by foreign publishers though, right?
Just because something is hot in the U.S. doesn’t mean it’s going to be big everywhere. Certain huge brand name authors will sell everywhere, but they might not sell hugely in all markets.
Speaking of American bestsellers, paranormal and dystopian works—especially in middle grade and YA categories—seem to have reached a saturation point on the acquisitions side here in the States. Is that also the case in some of the major foreign markets?
Both are over in most markets, and have been for at least a year. And remember: every market is going to have its own big trend. We have a WWII young adult novel on our list that an Italian publisher is rushing into production so it can capitalize on the success of another WWII kids book there. It is almost impossible to make global generalizations nowadays, except for huge brands. I remember that at the 2009 Bologna Book Fair everyone wanted paranormal romance again, because the Twilight movie had just come out. In 2012 there seemed to be interest in new adult; that interest was gone by 2014. There usually has to be some kind of game-changing title to cause all markets to be interested at the same time.
Coming from the agency side of the industry, do you see ways publishers could improve their approach to selling foreign rights?
I think they often prioritize bigger books over smaller books, because they have a financial need to sell a book that cost a lot of money. That’s perfectly logical, but the small books do sell. Also, when a U.S. publisher controls the foreign rights, the foreign publisher is going to deal with the U.S. publisher, not directly with the author. This often results in authors becoming less able to develop a strong connection with their new fans abroad.
Crystal ball question: how do you see the foreign rights business evolving in the next few years?
I think it would be great if we had an industry wide agreement on some kind of database for selling rights. In full disclosure, I’m on the BISG committee discussing this. Agents are still going to have to get on a plane once or twice a year and see their co-agents and their favorite editors in order to maintain those relationships. This business is built on relationships, and relationships have to be maintained in person. Beyond that, I think you’re going to start to see scouts working for smaller houses in smaller territories. These small territories are important, and they need the help of scouts.
This interview has been edited and condensed.