Updated: Jul 27
Back in the day, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I used to receive royalty by check in the mail instead of through a bank transfer. Usually, I’d sell foreign rights to a publisher, receive my advance, and never see another penny. A few times, however, I did receive follow-up royalties.
One fall I got an envelope that had French stamps on it. I opened the envelope and noticed it was a royalty check from my French Publisher. I glanced at the check and started to put it away. Then I did a classic double-take and pulled out the check to look at it again. Yipes. The amount was in the low five figures, which easily made it the largest royalty check (as opposed to an advance) I ever earned.
This was all through the magic of “rights”.
As you might know, when you create a novel or short story, you also create a work that has inherent rights. This includes the right to make it into a film. This includes the right to make it into a television series. This includes the right to make it into a musical. It also includes the right to translate your work into a foreign language. This last right is the one I have experience with (although I have had a couple of books recommended for a film, I am still waiting on my first nibble from someone who wants to move forward!).
Now, you shouldn’t get your information about literary rights from my blog. Some online sources will give you information about rights, however. I’d start with the Author Learning Center:
I also found a guide published by Poets & Writers. This is easier to read, but I don’t like articles that have a lot of absolutes, which this one does (don't do this, etc.). Every deal should be evaluated based on conditions and how much leverage you have in making the deal, in my opinion. Laws can change, so any article may get out of date, too.
So, what should you do?
In my opinion, you should make every effort to enlist the aid of an established agent. I know getting an agent can be harder than finding a publisher, but an agent is more than a salesperson. They also provide advice and experience with forging literary contracts.
With foreign sales, your agent may deal with a local, in-country agent. This agent will be paid a second percentage on the advance and royalties.
If you self-publish and market the rights, you can avoid these percentages, but I have no experience trying to negotiate with a foreign publisher, so I don’t know how hard this is. My attitude is a percentage of something is still better than all of nothing, but you may have a different opinion. Even though I spend 25% of my time in Europe, I wouldn’t know how to begin approaching a foreign publisher with an English-language book to translate.
If you’re a big writer, you may be able to specify who will translate your book. In my case, the publishers selected the translator. I’ve been told by native French and Italian speakers that the translations are excellent. I like to say I’ve been successful in these markets because I received 110% translation for my books (the books may be better in French and Italian than the originals in English!). If you are not familiar with my work, my books are peppered with Japanese words and are structured around samurai concepts of honor and behavior. They are not easy to translate. I appreciate the work of French, Italian, German, Japanese, Czech, Russian and Indonesian translators.
Since I don’t do the translation, the sale of foreign language rights is money earned for past work, with no additional effort from me. If the books catch on in a foreign market, that’s super. Although I call myself a cult writer in the US, my French publisher calls me a best seller. Like Jerry Lewis, I’m better regarded in France than in the US (something that sometimes gives me pause, depending on what I think of Jerry Lewis!).
This neatly brings me back to the beginning of this blog and my French royalty check.
We spent the money on an impromptu trip to Japan, where we spent a month at Christmas time visiting old friends and enjoying the Christmas craziness in Tokyo. To me, the lesson is to value foreign rights and familiarize yourself with all the rights inherent in your work.