Today’s Book Extract: How Authors Sell Publishing Rights by Orna Ross and Helen Sedwick
This is a necessarily brief introduction to something that is really, like so much in self-publishing, a learning-by-doing activity.
Negotiation and pitching take practice.
But once you have an understanding of the rights you own, a sense of your books and where they fit in the market and which rights you want to sell, you are ready to search out some potential rights buyers.
Then to make a pitch and, if it’s successful, negotiate a deal. Yes, learning by doing.
Making A Good Pitch
Your pitch will vary depending on what rights you’re looking to sell and whether you are pitching by email or in person. Either way, once you’ve got the fundamentals in place (book description, review materials, etc. as explained in Ch 4), a good pitch is all about presentation.
Whether you’re pitching agents or publishers,think about their needs and don’t be afraid to propose suggestions that might help them.
As a self-publisher, you have to convince the buyer of three things: the quality of the writing and the production of the book; your dedication as a publisher; and your ability to excite customers (readers, viewers, listeners, gamers…your rights buyer’s target audience.
Make your pitch easy to navigate, so people can absorb the information quickly. In the words of Joseph Pulitzer, “Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and,
above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.”
Research: Thoroughly research the rights buyer, getting into their skin and thinking about ways your book enhances their offerings, extends the discoverability of their other books and helps them meet their goals.
Be Professional: Whether pitching to an agent who can help you sell your rights, or directly to a publisher, your presentation should be simple, clean and professional. i.e. in the proper file format with the appropriate tone and voice. Copy should be clean and demonstrate sufficient knowledge and skill. Avoid gimmicks like crazy fonts or pictures; these only detract from your pitch.
Be Clear: Make it clear what is available to read now and what you hope the agent or publisher will achieve for you. Say why you write and who you identify as your audience. If you have been trade-published or have had an agent before, give details.
Be Honest: No hiding, subterfuge or trying to put one over on anyone. If this is a multiple submission, say so.
Have Passion: Be passionate about your work. Don’t boast or drone on, but don’t be afraid to show enthusiasm and tout your success. Practice a way of doing this without overselling or sounding immodest.
Demonstrate Success: List your achievements, presenting your ideas and your work clearly, simply and without hyperbole. If you have stats or analytics, prizes or sales points, here is the place to share them. Say what you have already published, what you have already written and what you see as long-term and achievable goals. Give examples of your success throughout the entire pitch.
Be Open: Listen to what the agent or publisher is saying and ask follow-up questions. See what you can learn. Show true and sincere passion while being open to feedback.
Mind your Language: Think about the language you use to describe your books and your ambitions. One agent we know recommends saying “our” and “we” early on in the pitch, already subtly including yourself in the agent or publisher’s team.
Be Strong: Highlight your strengths and where you add value. If you’ve got specialist skills that are rare, or something that no one else can offer (and most of us have), tell the agent or publisher. So many writers are hopeless at this. Practice and get better.
Be Yourself: Warts and All. Don’t be afraid to admit to gaps or weaknesses. Relax and smile, be friendly and don’t be afraid to crack the odd joke. Keep things light and be genuinely interested in the people you’re pitching. People always want to work with people they like. And people like people who like them.
Prep questions: Anticipate common or obvious questions you might get and prepare your answers. Make a list of questions to ask the buyer — and then, do refer to it and ask.
You also need to know when the rules can be bent. Sometimes the conventional method of doing things is less effective than getting creative. If you have an idea that would make your pitch stand out — that still holds true to Pulitzer’s advice above, and these general guidelines – it doesn’t need to lockstep in line with all the ”rules.”
There are no rules in publishing, any more than writing; there is only what works.
But don’t be quirky or different just for the sake of it. If you choose to color outside the lines, it needs to be consistent with your pitch and give it extra oomph.
Pitching Agents: John Penberthy
In this interview (republished with kind permission of www.bookmarket.com/foreign.htm), author John Penberthy explains how he has succeeded in selling his translation rights, working with overseas agents.
How did you start?
After self-publishing my book, I got a website made, which included a sixty-second trailer. Then I identified email addresses of over one hundred foreign literary agents through Internet research and sent them a brief descriptive email with the link to the trailer. This piqued the interest of a dozen or so who requested a review copy.
Several of them took me on and offers for translation rights from foreign publishers started coming— Korean, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Slovenian, Chinese and Romanian—with advances totaling nearly $40k. Several other languages are in the works.
What’s the most important thing authors should know?
Make it brief and succinct. Agents get a ton of emails per day and you have to have something that will be quick and grab their attention. In my case, I wrote a brief two-paragraph letter with a link to my sixty-second trailer. So they
could tell very quickly if it was something they might be interested in.
At the end of the trailer was a link to my site, where I offered the ebook version for free as a way of generating buzz. Interested agents could then read a few chapters to see if they wanted to request a hard copy.
One thing that strongly worked in my favor was that you can read my book in ninety minutes. Agents are overwhelmed with book submissions and loathe the amount of time it takes to read them, so ninety minutes was a breath of fresh air for them. Offering the ebook free was huge because it quickly disseminated the book all over the world and resulted in all kinds of interesting inquiries. You don’t want to do it forever, but when you’re starting out, it really helps generate buzz and eliminates all risk for prospective buyers. It was instrumental in many of my foreign
What types of books work better for foreign rights?
My book is a spiritual allegory about bees, sort of a next-generation Jonathan Livingston Seagull. People the world over have sought more meaning in their lives through spiritual understanding from time immemorial, so I felt my book had universal appeal. I had the illustrations drawn in a Chinese watercolor style in order to reflect the story’s Eastern approach to spirituality, which is really taking hold in the West, but also to appeal to the huge Asian market. This has worked well as two of my contracts are for Korean and Chinese, and I think I’m close in Taiwan and
Each author has to evaluate the extent to which their book will appeal to those within 1) the US, 2) Europe, 3) Latin America, and 4) Asia. These are the four big markets.
You’re probably not going to get any foreign deals for a cookbook, but I would think computer and Internet books would do well in most countries because computer people all speak the same language. Each author needs to assess the universality of his or her book’s appeal.
What should be included in the foreign rights packet?
Once I would get email replies from interested agents, I would send them just two things—the book and a detailed cover letter explaining the book, its uniqueness, market appeal and track record. For example, my book is a strong gift book—we’re averaging nearly five books sold per customer through our website. So I always made sure to mention this and the fact that To Bee or Not to Bee is a perennial gift book that would be in print for decades. Multiple sales and longevity definitely grab the attention of prospective publishers.
A zillion new books are published each year and publishers are always looking for something new and different, so I would encourage people to explain why their book is new and different. As foreign rights sales grew, I always mentioned the previous translation rights I had sold and the names of the publishers (to add credibility).
How long does it take for a foreign rights deal to happen?
It really varies. My first deal, Korean, was signed within a month of sending the agent the book. The book was published three months after that. This is lightning speed in the publishing world. My second deal, Italian, took about two months because the agent took it to the Frankfurt Book Fair, by far the largest book fair in the world, which happened soon after she received the book. I was lucky to have these deals happen so quickly, but one to two months is abnormally fast.
My third and fourth deals, Spanish and Portuguese, took about six months, again at a book fair. By the time these editions are released, one and a half years will have elapsed. In general, the publishing world moves at a snail’s pace so you have to be patient. My latest deal, Chinese, also took over six months. But other agents have been working other countries for over a year and still have no publisher prospects. Some publishers sit on books forever.
Once To Bee or Not to Bee is re-released by Sterling Publishing in the English-speaking world this fall and establishes a sales track record, I plan on doing another email blitz to foreign rights agents in all the countries for which rights haven’t been sold, apprising them of this new information. I hope this will generate a new round of rights sales.
Why should authors hire someone to negotiate for them?
I’m a strong believer in literary agents. Publishers rely on them to sort through all the riff-raff and know that books sent to them by good agents are worth their time considering. But most importantly, agents know what a book is worth and will negotiate the best deal for you. There are instances of publishers working directly with authors, but it’s a long shot. Publishers know authors are inexperienced in negotiating and desperate, so it’s highly likely the authors didn’t get the best deal possible.
Most foreign agents work with a co-agent in the author’s country, who feed them books to market, which already have a proven sales track record in the author’s country. In these cases, the two agents usually split a 20% commission. In my case it was the reverse. I marketed my book directly to foreign rights agents and built a track record of rights sales in other countries, which I then used to attract a US agent who subsequently got me a contract with Sterling Publishing here in the US.
How much time can an author expect to allocate?
It’s not very time-consuming. First you research foreign rights agencies on the Internet and put your list together. Then you draft your email letter and send it out. I probably haven’t spent more than a couple of weeks on this in total in a year and a half.
What are the things you look for in a foreign rights contract?
Because the agent is the intermediary, she usually has a standard contract which she prepares and sends to both parties for signatures, so the foreign contracts you will see are generally quite similar. The key factors, of course, are the amount of the nonrefundable advance and the royalty rate, generally only 7-8% on foreign rights, which should be applied to the retail price.
Royalties are deducted from the advance. Once the advance is paid back, the publisher makes royalty payments. Most publishers calculate royalties following the end of each calendar year, though some do so semi-annually. Payments are due a quarter later. The contract should have a finite term, usually five years. If the book proves to be big with good longevity, it can go back on the market at the end of the term for much better terms.
One thing that is absolutely critical is that the publisher provide a computerized statement showing sales, returns, etc. via postal mail to the author for each period. If figures are provided any other way (i.e. via email), it is too easy to fudge them. The language and geographic territory licensed should be specified. And the number of complimentary books provided to the author should be specified. The agent’s commission should be identified. One other important thing, for my book at least, was to limit rights to book publishing only. My vision is to see To Bee or Not to Bee made into a digitally animated film and so I always retained audio-visual rights.
You’re dealing strangers in foreign countries. Once you’ve got a contract, what about getting paid?
For the advance you’ve got leverage because you don’t email the manuscript file until you get the advance. But for royalties, once the advance is paid back, it can be dicey, depending upon the quality of the agents and size of the publishers you’re working with. My Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese contracts were secured by established agencies with large publishers. They provide computerized sales reports and are very legit. Publishers in Asia and
Eastern Europe can be more problematic, depending on their size and reputation. Many of these countries have only recently signed the international copyright agreements and some of the more marginal publishers still don’t feel they need to comply with them.
Even if the publisher does comply, they send the money to the agent, who is supposed to send it on to you, so there’s an extra layer of opportunity for graft. They know that you have no leverage; who’s going to spend thousands of dollars hiring lawyers in a country halfway around the world unless there are clearly large royalties at stake? The only leverage you have is if you have an American co-agent involved because the foreign co-agent’s reputation is at stake within the international agent community. Even then, many American co-agents expect only to receive their
share of the advance and spend little if any effort to collect royalties unless they are substantial. The moral of the story: the larger and more established the agency and publisher, the better chance you have of getting paid.
Pitching Publishers Direct: Dean Wesley Smith
Penberthy makes a good case for pitching overseas agents, but popular USA self-publishing commentator and author, Dean Wesley Smith, recommends dispensing with agents and going direct by cutting out the agent and contacting the overseas publishers yourself.
Back in those dark days where we all had to walk both ways, uphill, in the snow, just to get a book published. It was horrid, I tell you. Horrid. But Things Have Changed I know a lot of people, a vast number of people in agent-land and traditional publishing, don’t want newer professional writers to know things have changed. They want the old system to continue. But sadly for them, and great for the rest of us, things have changed a great deal.
Some general facts:
- In general, publishing contract with any publisher outside of North America is simpler by factors and factors. And easy to read.
- In general, publishing contracts from publishers outside of North America are clear to what the translation publisher is buying.
- In general, publishing contracts from publishers outside of North America have clear termination and reversion dates in them. And often limitations on print runs without a renewal.
- In general, after the first contract or two, you can do your own and negotiating is not often done. A small fee to an intellectual property attorney will often be enough on the first one or two.
- In general, most overseas contracts, (now all translation sales) are small unless your book is really taking off. Nature of smaller markets. Modern agents often don’t feel it is worth their time to do a short-term $500 contract and get $50. (Their overseas agent will take the other $50 in fee.) So they often don’t bother for their clients. Far too much work for them to deal with, they feel. (I personally like a $500 sales to a translation company.)
- In general, agents HATE contracts that have limited press runs, one fee, and no royalties because that means once they have the contract done, they get no more money and have no more hold on the book. So agents will try to make an overseas contract far, far more complex and add royalties.
- In general, the biggest area for agent embezzlement is from overseas book royalties. Authors don’t know they are owed money because seldom do overseas agents forward the paperwork or the money from the overseas publisher, and if they do, the money often gets stopped or “forgotten” in the state’s agency. Hard for an author to actually get regular overseas royalty payments.
But How Do I Sell a Book Overseas Without An Agent?
This is the area that just stunned me when I learned it about agents. About one third of all agencies in the United States farm out their overseas sales to another agency here in the States that does nothing but sell books overseas. The second agency does massive lists with hundreds and hundreds of authors names and books on it. (Nothing more.) And they regularly ship these gigantic lists to overseas agents to try to pitch to translation companies through overseas agents.
So, the flat honest truth is that unless you are a major bestseller, your book is ignored. When you have all the writers from twenty or thirty agencies on a huge list the size of a small town phone book, trust me, only the top even get looked at. And there are no covers or blurbs. Just title and author name, and sometimes genre.
That’s another ugly truth about how most agents “respect” your work and try to sell it overseas. They will flat tell you they are trying to sell you book overseas, then give the name and author name to another agency, who will add it on a list to go along with thousands of others.
So you are an indie writer. Right? How do you get your books noticed overseas?
Let me think…
Oh, yeah, you publish the thing in all markets. Duh. “Amazon, B&N, Kobo, iTunes, Smashwords, CreateSpace, and so on down through the smaller electronic distributors and international stores. And when you do, you click all the overseas channels.
And boom, your book is available in English worldwide.
Last month alone, Kris and I sold English language books in 26 different countries. That’s so normal, we seldom notice that now, where ten years ago, that would have been a major deal.
If you have your book available worldwide in English, people all around the world will have a chance to see your book, (with cover and blurb). If editor or someone at an overseas translation house reads your book and likes it (called a submission in the old world, but today they buy it instead), and the editor thinks your book will fit their translation line, the editor will contact you directly through your own publisher website.
Or your author website. (You do have “contact me” tabs, don’t you?)
So it goes like this so this is clear:
- You publish your book through all electronic and paper outlets available. (Not just Kindle.)
- Your book is available with your great cover and blurb, world-wide, for anyone to buy in English.
- An editor of a translation line at a publisher in an overseas company is looking for books for his line that will fit his topic. He finds and buys your book and reads it and likes it and thinks it will fit his line of books.
- The editor contacts you by e-mail.
- The editor will often ask for who your representative is. You write them back and say simply. “My attorney and I handle all translation sales.”
- The editor will make an offer directly to you. You say you are interested depending on the terms.
- The editor e-mails you a contract, you check it for rights grabs, sign it and e-mail it back.
- The translation publisher will send you the money by PayPal, wire, or direct transfer into your bank account.
The translation publisher will send you a copy of your book in French or German or whatever when the book hits print.
It really is that simple.
Since I got rid of my agent, and Kris got rid of her agent, we get factors more offers from overseas publishers. The agents we had were blocking the small offers, while we take them, for the most part.
And the overseas translation publishers are finding our books because we are publishing them in English all over the world. In every format through every store. And keeping them in print all over the world. And the overseas translation publishers are finding our books because we are publishing them in English all over the world. In every format through every store. And keeping them in print all over the world.
As I said, things have changed.
See more at Dean’s thought-provoking blog series about “Killing The Sacred Cows of Publishing.”
What’s Your Preferred Way?
This is certainly a valid approach for an indie author, and one not open to those who are trade-published who have already licensed their international rights.
It is called Passive Selling, as opposed to the more active approach described in the rest of our book. Wesley Smith may be leaving money on the table, in that he could take a more active approach and, with more research and reaching out, find a higher paying publisher.
Or he could have searched out an agent who might have been able to get a better deal for him. None of that matters; he is happy, meeting his goals while keeping writing and publishing in English as his top priority.
What’s your preferred way, active or passive, through agents or direct?
Decide and stick to it.
Pitching TV & Film Rights
One set of rights that may be worth your time and attention if you write the right kind of books are dramatization rights for TV and movies. Screen production companies like dealing with indie authors because rights ownership and control is so greatly simplified (and maybe because authors are less likely to know about, and stand up for, those rights).
If your book is trade-published, they will most likely want to speak to your publisher or an agent, depending on who holds the rights; if you are coming in as an indie author without an agent or lawyer, you will need to take the time to learn and know how film/TV deals work. Over or underselling something can make you come off as too cocky or too amateur—neither appealing to a buyer.
Be warned: the entertainment industry is even more challenging and unpredictable than the publishing industry and unless you are determined, and willing to spend a great deal of time and energy to embed yourself in this industry, you will need an entertainment lawyer or agent for contacts and contractual help.
With or without representation, this is a highly competitive arena, so be prepared to work hard on what is called your “pitch pack,” the entertainment industry’s equivalent of a book proposal. This can contain, along with your book, either a treatment—a summary of your story from a filmic perspective—or a full screenplay. Both are acceptable and customary, so it comes down to the time available and what you think you can best sell.
A full script is definitely good to have since it can be hard to get anyone to invest valuable time, resources and money into an idea without seeing how it plays out. Writing a good screenplay, though, is a totally different skill-set from writing a good book, and if this isn’t something you have a burning passion to do, putting in the effort to create a marketable screenplay may not be the best use of your valuable writing time. Consider working with a screenwriting coach or editor, if this is something you would like to do.
You can also use an experienced script writer as a ghostwriter or co-writer. Such arrangements allow both parties to focus their efforts and talents on the formats of writing in which they are skilled. The alternative, the treatment, can be used to showcase your idea without requiring you to write a full script.
Like a book proposal, a pitch pack includes a treatment, with or without a script also attached, as well as identifying the target audience, discussing comparable and competitive projects (in this case, shows/movies and their success figures, either ratings or profits) and some sample scenes. A good pitch pack will also include information about each character, a list of your dream actors and a logline.
The logline is arguably the most important part; your entire story pared down into a ten-second pitch that grabs attention. People reading pitch packs don’t have time to read the entirety of every synopsis that crosses their desks. Writer John Robert Marlow’s blog post “Building the Perfect Logline for Your Book, Screenplay, or Other Story” goes into detail about the elements needed for an effective logline.
One great example is Jurassic Park, “A family struggles to escape a remote island park whose main attractions—genetically restored dinosaurs—have been set loose by a power failure.” A complex story is succinctly brought down into a few words.
The makings of an appealing story are not necessarily the same for a book as for a movie, so when you approach an agent/producer you need to emphasize the cinematic elements of your work.
The ten basic cinematic elements are covered in great detail in this article “What Hollywood Wants: 10 Things Studios Like to See in Adapted (And Original) Screenplays”
Send out your project initially as a one-page query letter, just as you would to a publishing house or literary agent, addressed to a specific person at an agency, studio or production company. Do your research and be personal and selective in your query.
Contacts can be found in directories like the Hollywood Creative Directory and the trade press, like Hollywood Reporter and Variety.
Good information can also be had at the screenwriting magazines like Creative Screenwriting, Hollywood Scriptwriter and Written By.
Keep your query short (no longer than one page), professional and compelling. As always, don’t be shy about selling yourself, but don’t boast. If your book has won any awards, been a finalist in the competition, been a bestseller at home or abroad or is of interest in any marketable way, mention it.
Make sure that your treatment establishes the main characters and includes relevant information about the full arc of your story.
The Art Of Negotiation
The most important skill you have as a rights seller is the ability to judge and negotiate a sale. This begins with the indie mindset outlined in Chapter Four. As a general observation, we authors tend to undervalue ourselves. Many of us are poor negotiators.
On the one hand, we are afraid to ask for our due, or in some cases for anything at all. Knowing this, a publisher will start by offering a lower figure than they are prepared to pay. Too many authors, embarrassed to discuss money (and sometimes seeing that as a badge of honor or sensitivity) simply accept this offer and leave money on the table.
On the other hand, we can be over-emotional and attached to our positions. You may feel your book is your baby. If you cannot sufficiently contain your emotions, you should not handle the negotiation yourself.
It’s extremely important not to become emotional when negotiating. Losing your strength or patience or your temper, or insulting the other side (yes, it happens!) is unlikely to get you what you want.
If you are feeling threatened or bullied by the other party’s negotiation tactics, step back and look for ways to strengthen your own.
The art of negotiation is to get the other side to give up more than they intended through persuasive communication, for both sides to be pleased with the result in the end. Negotiating a publishing deal should be based on the win-win position, where the intention is that both parties will end up with most of what they want.
You will be working with this publisher for a long time after the negotiation, so a win-lose position, where you see yourself in opposition to the publisher and think you can only win by
ensuring that they lose, is a bad idea.
The most important part of negotiation is preparation.
So before you step into contract haggling, take the time to think about and write down your answers to the following:
Establish what is up for negotiation. How many titles, which territory, what rights, how long? Understand the anatomy of a publishing contract, what’s up for negotiation; and not. (See my session with Toby Mundy, ALLi’s literary agent, for more on this).
Aim as high as is reasonable. The publisher will never offer more than you try to negotiate but don’t display ignorance of the business by asking for unreasonable levels of royalty, for example. If you have offers of interest from more than one publisher, that puts you in a stronger bargaining position.
If pitching rights to a publishing imprint that is part of a group, bear in mind that imprints from the same group will rarely bid against each other. If a book is being sold by multiple submission or auction, any imprint can make an offer but if, toward the end of negotiations, two imprints from the same group are the ones left bidding, one of them must withdraw to protect the group against a situation of having two of their own editors competing against each other and escalating costs that must be paid by the same bank account.
Make a Checklist. Once a publisher has made an initial offer, draw up the checklist of the portions of the offer you want to improve and why. Most people like to see themselves as reasonable, even in contract negotiation. So if you ask for a change in the contract and provide a reasonable justification, the other side is more likely to accommodate your request. By having a priority list, you’ll be better prepared to give up something low on your list to prevail on something more important.
Negotiating around more items than you intend to settle for gives you points you can trade with, and cede, in order to win other things that matter more to you. This makes you look reasonable and civilized, and can make a publisher warmer to your position as negotiations proceed.
Keep the negotiation open to the end. If you are face-to-face, keep nodding your head, even when you are saying negative things or asking for more.