Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Happy BEA!

by Lauren

By the time this posts, I'll already be at the DGLM table in the International Rights Center at the Jacob Javits Center, doing my duty at Book Expo America as the agency's subsidiary rights director. Today is the beginning of American publishing's largest trade show and, for me, a three-day extravaganza of back-to-back meetings with foreign publishers, sub-agents, scouts, audio editors, and film producers. I’ll leave it to one of my colleagues to give you the BEA scoop in another post, but in the meantime, I thought it might be a good time to talk subrights.

I offered a basic rundown of how subrights works a couple years ago, but maybe now would be a good time to talk in more depth. Since foreign rights take up the bulk of my time—and will account for most of my meetings this week—why don’t we start there? If you’d like to know more about audio, film, and serial, just let me know below, and I’ll tackle them in future posts.

Foreign is the biggest rights market. When a book sells to an American publisher, there are more or less three options: North American, world English, or world. Occasionally a book sells separately to Canada and the US, but that’s not the norm unless the author is Canadian, and even then, it really depends on the type of book.

In a North American rights deal, the American publisher will distribute their edition in English in the US, Canada, the US territories, and the open market. The open market is the term for those territories where English-language rights are fair game. American and British publishers have essentially carved up the world into three sections: US exclusive territories; UK & Commonwealth exclusive territories; and everywhere else. Occasionally, there’s a land grab from one side or the other insisting that they must have exclusive rights to a particular place (BEA 2006 featured a panel on the whole kerfuffle). I’ve seen British publishers insist that they should get Europe exclusively because they’re…nearby? And I’ve seen US publishers insist that India’s not in the British Commonwealth. The part of it that always perplexes me is that the major players on both sides are generally owned by the same parent companies. The open market is the territories in which both the US and the UK publishers are allowed to sell. In the end, all that matters from the authors’ and agents’ perspectives is that the publishers’ dispute doesn’t prevent a sale to both territories and that the book is widely available. The notion that an island nation that no one involved could pick out on a map is a deal breaker is really quite silly. Fortunately, it usually works out.

In a world English deal, this is blessedly not our problem, though unfortunately we also lose the chance to do a separate deal in the UK. This typically means that the US publisher has a UK arm that they feel will publish or distribute the book well. All non-English rights, though, are controlled by the author, which means that we’re trying to place those where possible.

In a world rights deal, it’s all—English and every other language—in the publisher’s hands.
The way that foreign rights deals are typically done is through a network of subagents in the major territories throughout the world. In countries like the UK, Germany, Japan, etc., there are agencies that represent American publishers and agents, and those are the people I work most closely with on foreign rights deals. Our subagents represent the full list of rights that we represent on behalf of our authors in their territories, though of course not all books will sell in all countries.

Sometimes, books don’t sell internationally at all—it’s often said that such books “don’t travel.” Books that depend largely on pre-existing interest in the author or subject, for example, are less likely to sell internationally if that pre-existing interest isn’t also international. A novel by a small publisher in the US is more likely to sell than a bestselling American cookbook by a celebrity chef who is not on TV outside the US market. This is one of the things I love most about foreign rights: the rules are totally different and sometimes the little guy in the US market gets to be a bigshot elsewhere. As part of that, there’s a lot of information to manage: true crime sometimes sells in Australia, Germany and Japan, but rarely elsewhere unless the case has international reach; memoirs are tough in Spain; and you can’t typically sell to a foreign country those things that they feel they do better than the US. For example, literary fiction is tough to sell in France, but commercial novels are easier. (The French don’t exactly clamor for American attempts at high culture.) Horror’s tough to sell in Asia, because their standards for what’s frightening are quite different than the American one: think of The Ring as compared to an American slasher flick.

I really love these little glimpses into foreign cultures, and it’s always really satisfying when I choose a book to highlight for a particular subagent or publisher and get a sale. And it’s a huge pleasure to work directly with clients of the agency who aren’t my own, some of whom I’ll be lucky enough to see for a bit at the fair!

Any questions?


  1. Very interesting post, that French attitude is hilarious. Surely there are exceptions though, right? Can it be that Philip Roth doesn't sell in France? What about other European countries, do their literary efforts sell well in France?

  2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/oct/02/nobelprize.usa

    American literary fiction is not terribly well regarded elsewhere. Roth is often singled out as particularly unworthy.

  3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/mar/08/novelists-pull-a-roth

    Except for the times when Roth is singled out as particularly worthy. I'm not eager to convince a Roth hater that he's great. The jury is surely out and we've all made up our minds already.

  4. Interesting and very informative, as usual. Thanks!

  5. Do you ever have authors from the US who contact agents/publishers in Britain and Australia and get deals for publication that they then have to bring "back home" to the US, in reverse of what one might think is the standard way of doing things?

  6. "I'm not eager to convince a Roth hater that he's great."

    I'm certainly not a Roth hater. I posted that link in reply to the first one. Even Roth has nothing like the reputation abroad as here.

    As for the broader point, the Dystel blog has made it before: the US is insular, the market for translated novels is tiny (to the point that the Larsson books must really be distorting the figures this year). Americans like stories about Americans and see anything else as exotic.

    Why would the UK publishers want the European rights? Well, why would a NY publisher want the Californian rights? - the UK is part of the EU single market, half its trade is with the rest of Europe, and publishing is an important part of that.

    More importantly, UK writers are an important part of that international conversation the Guardian article talks about, UK literary novel do tend or at least aspire to a broader scope than 'aging US academic feels impotent in the face of younger competition and writer's block so has an affair' or 'introspective smalltown American is frustrated so has an affair'.

  7. Anonymous, what you're saying is obviously true; there is an insularity to the US literary market. But many of the better books tend to avoid that insularity. I'm thinking of books like Roth's The Counterlife, Operation Shylock or Krauss' The History of Love; these are books with a much larger scope. Or a book like Everyman or McCarthy's The Road, which I would think would have universal appeal.

    My question is this: When a worthy American book comes along, does the international market pick up on it, or is there a broad assumption that American books don't appeal overseas?

  8. Oh, and I forgot about one of my favorites from the past few years, Kunkel's Indecision. It seems that more people disliked than liked it. But whatever its faults might be, it was a book that was explicitly dealing with the question of how Americans should engage with other parts of the world.

  9. "the question of how Americans should engage with other parts of the world."

    There's a common joke: Americans think 'international' means 'Americans abroad'.

    There are nineteen non-Americans for every American on the planet, and whole areas of life, art and so on that the US barely engages with.

    To take one example: which is bigger, baseball or cricket? No ... there are fifty cricket fans for every baseball fan, fifty times more people watch an international Indian cricket match as watch the World Series. So when Michael Chabon writes a book about baseball ... well, it's not for export.

  10. Um, I hate to break it to you, but America is in a significant position in the world community. Whether you find it appropriate or not, the way that Americans engage with the rest of the world is important to everyone. It's getting to be almost equally important how China and India relate to the rest of the world.

    I'm an American who has been living in the Middle East for the past six years and I can tell you firsthand that the United States is an important daily reality here. I'm not saying if that's a good or a bad thing, it's just a fact.

    Again, I'm not saying the rest of the world should be interested in baseball novels. I was asking if the rest of the world notices when Americans produce novels that are of genuine international interest.

  11. "Whether you find it appropriate or not, the way that Americans engage with the rest of the world is important to everyone."

    How American interacts is a very important issue, who could possibly argue otherwise? There are surprisingly few 'foreign policy' US literary novels - certainly compared with the UK, where every single one seems to be about post-colonialism. There are very few books like The Quiet American written by Americans.

    One very constructive way American authors and readers might engage is just to *listen*, not to tune out if it isn't about Americans. As a couple of very well qualified DGLM staff have noted, there's a tiny amount of translated stuff that makes it over here, and very little of it sells.

    The US reaction to Herta Muller winning the Nobel (in the circles where such things are noticed) was 'who?'. But compare and contrast the Land of Green Plums with The Plot Against America, both of which are about the same sort of things. One is lived and poetic and immediate, the other is a literary exercise, it's distanced, predictable. That's the difference. Muller > Roth.

  12. I haven't read Muller yet, I'm definitely looking forward to that. I liked the Plot Against America but I wouldn't put it too close to the top of Roth's oeuvre. I thought the prose was up to his usual standard, but I agree that it reads more like an exercise than anything else. To me, it was a family study masquerading within its interesting premise.

    If you haven't read The Counterlife, I'd highly recommend it. Outside of Sabbath's Theater, it's probably my favorite Roth. Aside from being a brilliant exercise of interlocking and conflicting narratives, it's also fully engaged with a variety of international identity issues. It deals with what it means to be American, British, Swiss-German and Israeli and what happens when these groups commingle with one another. It also deals with what it means to be an American Jew as opposed to an Israeli Jew. It's just a great book dealing with religion, politics and sexual morality.

    You also might want to check out Indecision. It's mainly about a young, insulated New Yorker who learns to become engaged with the world at large. I personally disagreed with his politics, but it's a sincere attempt at a globally minded political philosophy. I also think Kunkel is spot-on with the sexual politics of my generation (those of us born in the early 80s).

  13. Some great discussion going on here while I was away!

    Sam: Yes, there are definitely exceptions. There are some books from most countries with a strong publishing industry that will be published virtually everywhere--and that includes translating into English for the American market. American books ARE bought by foreign publishers in droves--if they weren't, then I wouldn't have the job I do--but certain types of books are stronger in some places than others.

    smokesignal: Yes, but that would be unusual. There'd have to be a good reason why the book would be more viable elsewhere for the publishers not to overlook it--because they may well think that it was simply something that couldn't get a US publisher because it's not good enough. There's rarely a good reason for an American to bypass their home market, since it's the most viable.

    As for the broader discussion, while American novels tend to be very American, I would actually argue that that's true of most novels from most places. Certainly English literature is often very identifiably English, and Scandinavian crime fiction has a distinct vibe, as does French literary fiction. I studied both Irish and Indian lit in college, and so much of it is explicitly about national identity--and much of the rest of it is metaphorically. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but it's hard for a person not to imbue their work with the perspective and culture and concerns with which they've formed their identity. And there's no reason why they shouldn't.

    I don't think a certain kind of insularity in literature is a failing. Oftentimes, a book will be more appealing if there's some universality, but since literature generally grapples with the big things--love and relationships and desire and ambition and the meaning of life and the state of things and all the rest--I'm not sure how much it matters if the protagonist lives out those issues in Canton, Ohio, or Istanbul. Literary fiction is often an attempt to engage with the culture whether of a family, town, nation, or the world at large. At its core, some literature will always be very much of a place, and most countries will be inherently more interested in their own literary fiction than that of others.

    It's really hard to say who is most open and who isn't--the US publishing market is enormous and in itself enough to support a book that never makes it overseas; many foreigners speak English and have access to American or British books without needing translations; we publish an astonishing number of books each year compared to the number released elsewhere and have far more publishers; foreign consumption of America's other types of cultural export especially of the very commercial variety is incredibly high; literary fiction is probably always a harder sell than commercial fiction anywhere because publishing is a business and businesses like to make money; and America is large enough and powerful enough that its citizens have a very easy time not looking beyond its borders if they choose. I don't get the impression that it's fair to assume that foreign books don't get published in the US because it's insular AND foreign publishers don't publish enough US fiction because America's insular: discourse between cultures is extremely complicated and if one wants to find fault, I'd guess it's easy to find on both sides.

    All that said, plug in a bunch of American literary authors to French Amazon, and you'll easily find that there's plenty being published over there that comes from over here. It just isn't as easy a sale.

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