Books in Translation: Foreign Rights Generate Author Income


Here at the Trident Media Group literary agency, the advances and royalties received from foreign publications makes up about a third of our overall income. So you can imagine that for an author, foreign rights, or books in translation, might also make up about the same overall income on any given book title of theirs. Well, that's certainly nothing to scoff at! That's just one of the reasons why we make every effort we can on behalf of the authors at Trident Media Group to retain foreign rights, such that foreign rights can be properly exploited to an author's benefit. In this article I explore the benefits of working with a literary agency in the foreign publishing markets, as well as the downside of allowing American publishers to handle foreign rights for authors.

What happens when domestic U.S. book publisher gets the foreign rights to an author's book? Oftentimes, that can mean one of two things... In the best case scenario, the U.S. publisher licenses the foreign rights to a third-party publisher, or publishes the book in another language through one of their own publishing arms. Domestic U.S. publishers tend to do very little hand-selling in pitching U.S. authors to foreign, publishers to even arrive at that point, though. That's usually due to having big lists where authors get thrown into massive sales catalogs with other authors. Foreign book sales performed by U.S. publishers can result in the U.S. publisher taking upwards of fifty percent of the proceeds from the foreign publications. That's a massive tole on the road for authors. Keep in mind, any income, such as foreign advances and foreign royalties, are applied again the unearned book advance that the U.S. publisher has paid to the author!

If that didn't sound bad enough, now for the worst case scenario, when a U.S. publisher gets the foreign rights to an author's book in a book deal negotiation... Sometimes when a U.S. publisher keeps the foreign rights, the foreign rights simply do not get sold to a foreign publisher. Instead, the foreign rights merely sit on a shelf and collect dust—which is extremely frustrating to authors and literary agents—because U.S. publishers will utterly refuse to return unsold rights. The U.S. publisher would rather sit on unsold rights, in the hope that they might be a golden egg that hatches. Often, the golden goose will never arrive, unfortunately. It can take a ton of leveraging from a literary agency to get the unsold rights back from a book publisher and by that point in time, it is very difficult to get backlist rights sold to foreign publishers.


What happens when a literary agency helps an author retain foreign rights and sells the foreign rights directly to a foreign publisher? This is usually the best case scenario for authors, for a number of reasons. The biggest reason...when a literary agent sells foreign rights for an author, the commission the literary agency takes (twenty percent, to twenty-five percent) is much smaller—compared to what a U.S. publisher takes (as much as fifty percent). Working with a literary agency to sell foreign rights also results in direct payment of advances and royalties for the author, since there's no unearned book advance from a U.S. publisher to apply earnings against. Not to mention that we at Trident Media Group also perform foreign tax filings for our clients, such that authors do not receive high tax penalties for foreign income, and in some cases, we can do away with foreign tax penalties altogether. At the Trident Media Group literary agency, we perform all of the necessary deal-making, contract review and financial information tracking for authors in the foreign markets.

Another good reason for an author to have their literary agent handle their foreign rights, is that the literary agency can hand-sell to foreign publishers with the help of a foreign rights team and can handle a smaller list, compared to the massive list a U.S. publisher has to handle. At international book fairs where foreign rights get sold, the Trident Media Group literary agency is able to sit across the table from foreign publishers and ask them how they're doing, what their market is like, what they're looking for—before we cater a particular title to their needs. Trident is a big enough literary agency that we do not have to farm our business out to third party companies to handle our foreign rights. (That is not always the case with other literary agencies and smaller boutique literary agencies, keep in mind... A smaller literary agency will be more inclined to use a third-party agency to help them sell rights, if they haven't already given foreign rights away to the U.S. publisher for a nominal increase in the book advance). Our foreign rights team at Trident Media Group sells direct and takes a yearly trip to the biggest book fairs in the world, including the London Book Fair, Frankfurt Book Fair and the Bologna Book Fair. We send a contingency of half a dozen literary agents and have a very big present at the international book fairs where we show our company flag.

One more reason that a literary agency working directly in the foreign markets on behalf of their authors is beneficial, is that the literary agency can oversee foreign business in an ongoing-basis, by meeting and corresponding with foreign publishers. And Trident Media Group doesn't just attend the foreign book fairs—our literary agency is the first stop for foreign publishers when they come to visit New York City so they can know what will be hot in the foreign markets! Nowhere else in the industry can authors get this level of attention in the foreign markets. That's just one of the reasons why Trident ranks in the top ten fore literary agencies performing six-figure+ deals in the foreign markets.

Now just remember to hold onto those foreign rights the best you can!