Friday, June 15, 2018

Don't give publishers rights they can't exploit

I wrote, in English, a historical novel that takes place in Lisbon during World War II. It came to the attention of a major publisher in Portugal, which published it (in late May 2018) in Portuguese. The publisher has all language rights except English, which I kept.

Now I want to start the process of trying to get the novel published in its original version. (1)What is the best way to pitch it to an agent or publisher in the States? (2)Is the fact it's been published in another language a good selling point? (I don't have sales figures yet.) (3)Will it matter much that the English-language publisher won't have other language rights to sell? (4)What else should I consider, or highlight, as I pitch?

Your oh-so-pointed sharky advice would be much appreciated. 

I'm glad you realize this is going to be pointed, cause I want to smack you around with a nerf bat!

For starters, why did you license all languages but English to the Portuguese publisher? Do they have the ability to sell it to China? Romania? Croatia?  My guess is no they do not because their job is publishing books in Portugal.

My guess is you did it because you didn't know not to, and that's not a character flaw of course, but honest to god it's why you GET AN AGENT!!!

You wrote this book in English. Query agents who work in the English-speaking market. Despite some of the books I've read recently, I'm fairly sure English is our working language here.

When we take on the book we can help you with the Portuguese deal, and RETAIN your other rights to sell them to other markets.

Please tell me at least that this Portuguese publisher has to split the take on any deals they make for you, AND that if they don't the rights revert to you in a year or so. (Ok, you didn't know to do that either, and I'll just sit over here weeping shark tears into an already salty sea.)

As to your questions:
1. The best way to pitch this to agents in the states is a query letter. You have to tell them it's an English only deal cause you licensed translation to the other guy.
2. No, the fact that all your subrights are tied up someplace else is NOT a selling point.
3. Yes
4. There isn't anything other than the book to pitch.

Bottom line: NEVER grant rights to a publisher if they're not in a position to exploit them. This means when a publisher wants film rights you say no. They aren't a film studio. A publisher without an active foreign rights department or a contracted foreign rights agent shouldn't be granted translation rights cause they have no way to execute them for you.

Any sub right grant should divide the money between author and publisher with the majority going to the author. 60/40, 75/25 etc.

There should be a limited number of years that the subrights are with a publisher. After that time period expires, the author should be allowed to have the unexploited rights revert back.

Any questions???


E.M. Goldsmith said...

Ouch. The shark bites wise and deep. I will get an agent. One that goes well with dragons and impossible things. Then maybe I will bleed less out there on the market. Back to work.

CynthiaMc said...

This is why I follow your blog.

Same goes in acting.

Ashes said...

You know what strikes me as poignant about this question?

That Janet seems to be swinging harder than the author.

And author who I am sure was pleased to be published in Portugal. But who, it seems, thought it would be just peachy to retain only the English rights.

In this author's mind, getting published in just English and Portugal would be a dream. But Janet wants ALL THE RIGHTS, the potential to publish in 2,365 languages.

Maybe this is because authors are so often told to temper their expectations. But this has been a firm reminder never to temper your potential.

Elissa M said...

The good news is OP can write more books that aren't tied up with the Portuguese publisher. I mean, there's nothing in the first contract that grants the publisher any sort of rights to subsequent work, right? Right!? (I really, truly hope this is true.)

My eyes cross and my brain stalls whenever I read any sort of legal document. This is only one of the reasons I'd rather remain unpublished than go into that ocean without an agent, but it's a major one.

Amy Johnson said...

Opie: Congratulations on getting your novel published! By a major publisher! This must be such an exciting time for you. And I imagine it must feel great to know you've got what it takes. Best wishes for continued success with this book and any future ones.

Claire Bobrow said...

Congratulations on your book, OP! You are much farther down the writing path than many of us here.

That said, you’ve been given a bracing infusion of wise advice. The nitty-gritty of publishing rights is more confusing than a swamp on a moonless night. I hope Janet’s counsel helps with the current book, and with the next ones. Good luck. We are rooting for you!

Julie Weathers said...

OP, congratulations on your publication. That's a big deal. I wish you all the best with that.

That being said, Le Sharque is right. I cringe when I see the publisher has retained all rights except English.

I can't imagine an agent being interested unless the book does really well, but maybe I'm wrong.

This is another reason I cringe when people say, "I don't know why I need an agent."

I want to reply, "let me count the ways." Mostly I remain quiet because they have already made up their mind and I have better things to do than argue with nurikabes.

We had a discussion about film rights a while back. We being me and some other writers acquaintances. Someone remarked they could very well see RC in film medium. I have less than zero interest in that. I wonder if that's one of those things that should be discussed if I ever get "the call".

Steve Stubbs said...

Congratulations. Quite a trick to sell foreign language rights to a book that has never been published, and what an interesting idea. i never would have thought of a WW2 novel set in Lisbon. That tells me you are very creative. I want to read this whe it comes out in English.

You may have made a mistake not using an agent, but it is easy to recover from. Just write another book. You will still be a debut author in the North American market and you will have an important selling point to add to your bio.

Good work. You're on your way. Good luck.

Barbara Etlin said...

As Ashes says, "authors are so often told to temper their expectations."

OP, this is a tough lesson to learn through experience. Best of luck in getting a good agent to help you going forward. And congrats on your book sale!

It strikes me that recognizing full potential, while important for everyone, is especially vital for children's writers. You never know when one of your characters might have take off and have merchandising rights potential, or tv, or film, or games...

Tena Russ said...

About rights: I might have the opportunity to sell film rights to my novel to a reputable buyer. I don't currently have an agent who, with luck, would sell my novel to a publisher. What could possibly go wrong? I know you are an agent and would therefore approach this from an agent's perspective.

Brenda said...

You can trust this forum for unbiased advice. Janet has no dog in the fight for your profits and she’s remarkably helpful (for a carnivore). As I see it, if you have a solid offer on your film rights you should have no problem hiring an agent to broker the deal for you. As for what could go wrong, a google search will reveal stories to chill your authorial bones.

Craig F said...

Tena: E-mail you question to my Queen and it will probably end up posted with a good answer.

I heard at one time that there are rights still being held by producers after fifty years. I have also heard that for every completed project there were a few hundred rights holding it up.

I would like to know some facts too.

John Davis Frain said...

OP, when you set your second book up the coast in Porto, it'll probably be a better book and you'll have all this additional wisdom. Keep writing.

OT, I'm at a writer's conference this weekend and it is so fun to be in the company of similar-minded people. True story: For a few moments, I sat back in an auditorium where about 100 or so writers were mingling and I thought, imagine if this were the Reef Writer's Conference and I sorta "knew" a bunch of these crazy people.

Hey, let a guy dream. I smiled and it was a fun few moments.

JEN Garrett said...

No questions, just adding my agreement. I once negotiated a contract for a co-authored stage play script. According to the original contract the play publisher could pull publication for any reason at any time, but there was no way for the playwright to terminate the contract nor did it say that rights reverted back to the playwrights. Luckily, the publisher put in the changes without argument.

There's always the possibility the author will be very happy with their publisher, but life happens! We need agents who will spot missing clauses in the contract and negotiate for us a decent deal BEFORE we make our mark at the bottom.

(Sorry, Janet, I made this comment as short as possible!)