Rights Sales

Welsh Books Council

Rights Sales

Rights sales are important for even the smallest publisher. They can provide substantial additional income for little extra work and should therefore be part of the sales & marketing staff’s brief. They can also help develop long-term partnerships with other publishers who regularly buy from you and who might sell you one of their bestsellers for translation.

Rights can roughly be broken down into two areas:

  • translation rights for text-only books
  • co-edition rights for illustrated four colour titles.

These areas require distinctly different negotiations and contracts.

Much of the selling is done at Frankfurt and London Book Fair whilst, for children’s books, Bologna is the must-attend event.

In-house vs. agents

If rights sales are to be undertaken in-house it is advisable to send the person dealing with them on a training course. Such courses are frequently run by the Publishing Training Centre (see www.train4publishing.co.uk) If the cost of training is prohibitive, Lynnette Owen’s book, Selling Rights  (6th Edition, Routledge 2010), will be an invaluable resource. The author deals with all aspects of rights selling, right down to the nitty-gritty of preparing for book fairs.

Here are some of the most important issues to bear in mind:

  • Do you actually have the right to sell the book in translation? Some authors, especially those with agents, might hold on to them and not clear them for the publisher. The same applies to illustrators. Check before embarking on any selling activity.
  • What royalty percentage have you agreed with your author? Do not forget to add it into the final quote to the publisher.
  • Know your customer and product. Don’t waste your time running through your complete catalogue during an appointment: find out beforehand what the other publisher is interested in.
  • Editors and rights agents tend to be the busiest people during book fairs. Make sure you book appointments early.
  • Prepare as much as possible in advance.
  • Any press coverage and good reviews should be added to the presentation material – it will give the publisher/agent confidence in the quality of the list.

Rights Agents

Some publishers prefer to use a specialised rights agent to act on their behalf for a percentage fee of the agreed deals. One advantage of using a rights agent is that they tend to be established professionals with a wide range of contacts with international publishers. It is, however, important to find an agent who has contacts with relevant publishers: a fiction specialist, for example, might not be well connected to academic or non-fiction publishers. The best way of evaluating their remit is to look at the publishers they already represent. It is also wise to request some references before appointing an agent and to have a contract or letter of agreement that spells out in detail who will cover which areas and what is and isn’t included in the fee. For example, some rights agents might be happy to send out review copies themselves but are likely to charge for this service on top of their fee.

Finding a rights agent can be difficult, but good starting points are the on-line and free-to-use directories of the various book fairs, which all have rights centres and full contact details. e.g.


Another route is to buy a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. Some information can also be found on the web, e.g. at: www.writersservices.com/agent/

If you feel your programme has an affinity with another established publisher, it is easy to find whom they use to sell rights. However, many of the very big international publishers employ in-house staff.

Rights for black & white-only books

Depending on the subject, a royalty of 6-9% for paperback books and 9-12% for hard cover books is typically charged. You should try to cover the first print-run royalties in an advance. Many countries charge VAT on books: this will need to be deducted before working out the royalty advance.

Print-run 2000 copies
Retail price: €12.99 (incl. local VAT of 7%)
Royalty: 8%
€12.99 – VAT = €12.08 of which 8% is  €0.96
2000 x €0.96 = €1920

This means that €1920 is the sum you should be charging on signature of the contract and that the risk, therefore, lies with the publisher who bought the rights and not with you for the first print-run. Some customers might try to negotiate 50% payable on contract, with further royalties payable only on copies sold: this means that the risk is shared. Both ways of working are common and it is up to you to decide which you are more comfortable with.

You should consider whether the contract is a one-off deal (try to be as tough as possible) or whether this could be a long-term partner (you might want to consider getting them to work with you in the first place). However, once the general terms are agreed, it tends to be difficult to agree tougher terms. It is normally advisable, therefore, to start on fairly strict terms and then scale down according to the volume of business.

Note: Some countries levy a special tax on intellectual property rights deals. Find out in advance and build it into your quote. In some cases signing a double taxation form (available from the Inland Revenue) will alleviate some of those charges. However, instead of receiving the whole sum, you may find that 10-15% will still be deducted by the government of your foreign customer.

Rights for four-colour illustrated books

You may have come across publishers called ‘packagers’: this is what they concentrate on. Theirs can be a very lucrative business. The main cost of producing a colour book lies in the layout, picture research & clearance, colour film/files and setting up the printing machines. This therefore presents an ideal opportunity to print more than one language at the same time, i.e. printing all the colour pages in one go and then only change the black text for each language.

The key elements of making this work are:

  • Timing. Bear in mind that the foreign publishers will need time to translate. Three months is the minimum they would expect from you, so in order to synchronise efforts, everyone needs meticulous planning.
  • Text length. The longer the text, the more expensive the translation. This might deter a customer, who would generally bear the cost of translation. The received wisdom is that up to 40,000 words is acceptable.
  • Pricing. Make sure to account for all costs and that it is clear who pays for transport, insurance, freight, etc.
  • Keeping to deadlines. Make sure that you do not agree to unrealistic deadlines. Some things are just not feasible and will come back to haunt you.
  • Layout. If the ‘co-editioning’ is not borne in mind when the book is designed it can be costly to rectify it in hindsight.

If you try to sell co-editions it is imperative that the layout is ‘co-editionable’ i.e. suitable for a text change. Usually this means that everything that needs to be translated has to be in black colour and in a separate file and illustrations should not contain text. Your customer will place the translation in a specially prepared file: once this is delivered to you, it can easily be flowed into the main body of the book. If an illustration does contain text which is either vital for the understanding of the book or appears in a very dominant way, publishers will expect to be able to change the words into the target language. An experienced designer and/or printer will be able to advise in detail on these issues.

Easiest in terms of timing would be a sale to any English-language market (US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa) where the publisher would simply put its own logo on the spine and cover and change the imprint page.

More complex would be a scenario where you have your own print-run of 3000 copies and manage to sell, say, 3000 German, 2000 French and 2000 Spanish copies, ending up with a 10,000 copy print-run. Your own copies would be cheaper and therefore more profitable and you would have generated additional income to compensate for the higher cost of creating a four-colour book from scratch. It will, however, mean delaying the printing of your own book in order to give your customers time to translate: the initial planning of your own publishing schedule must allow for that. Alternatively, you could just go ahead with printing your own copies and then wait to achieve a large co-edition run at a later date.

The attraction of the co-editions can summed up as follows:

  • You sell the finished product at a set price. (As a rule of thumb, if you double your unit print cost you will make a good margin.) There will be no royalties payable: the price should include elements for production, royalties and transport.
  • You invoice a large part in advance: typical payment terms being 30% on contract, 30% on delivery of files and 40% sixty days after delivery of books.
  • The risk lies entirely with your customer: they took the risk because it was cheaper for them to buy the book from you than create it themselves.
  • If you have negotiated well with your printer you may receive payment before your bills are due.

Date last updated: 26 Jun 2013