Why Foreign Rights are a Big Deal for Small Publishers

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

By Maria Jesus Aguilo

SAN FRANCISCO: As Director of Subsidiary Rights at Berrett-Koehler Publishers, one of the most common questions that I get from other independent houses is: “Are translation rights worth the effort?” My answer is always a resounding “Yes!”

While we only publish about 40 to 50 titles per year, we have signed well over 2,000 translation rights deals in our 20 years of existence. Our translation rights revenues account for over 10% of our annual income. Our titles are translated on average into five languages each, and curiously, most of our income in a particular year comes from translation sales of backlist titles, sometimes as far back as the mid-90s.

This success is greatly due to the nature of our books: non-fiction titles in the areas of business and personal development, universal topics that travel well across cultures. I suspect that if we only published books on the local flora and fauna of San Francisco we would not have come so far, no matter the efforts. However, we also attribute a lot of the success to our proactive strategy going back to the founding of the company in 1992 when, with just three employees and ten titles in the pipeline, we made it a priority to have a dedicated stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It certainly felt like an extravagant expense at the time, especially because we had simultaneously contracted the services of an experienced New York agent, who was busy in the rights center pitching our books to publishers. Our agent encouraged us to develop personal relationships with our buyers, and the fair still provides an excellent opportunity to do just that. When our agent decided to retire twelve years ago, we decided that we could do the rights sales on our own.

The transition was fairly seamless, but only because we were again proactive. Up to that point, managing the translation rights had been the part-time responsibility of one employee. All it entailed was keeping the agent up-to-date with the materials, and the agent would take care of the rest: the negotiations, drafting of the contracts, invoicing, sales reports, and payment management. Without the agent, all this was to be done in-house. We allocated the job to one full-time employee, and more importantly, we created sound systems to process the vast amounts of paperwork that were now in our court. While we retained local subagents in key territories, whose help has been and continues to be invaluable, we started to work directly in some other territories.

And we never failed to be present at the industry fairs with at least two representatives (in later years we would add London and Guadalajara, with occasional visits to other fairs in Gothenburg and Beijing; we also started renting a table in the International Rights Center at BEA). This allowed us to continue developing those relationships with buyers without having an agent taking care of the business side of things.

As in many things in life, consistency is key. At Berrett-Koehler, the consistency is two-fold. Our publishing agenda has always been heavily mission-driven and with a strong emphasis on sound editorial content. As a result, our foreign partners have learned what to expect from our list. We have also been very consistent in our follow-up, never failing to send our catalog twice a year to a list of over 300 publishers all over the world and maintaining regular correspondence with many of them. In addition to sending bi-monthly e-newsletters about our new releases and department’s activities, we also keep them up to date with publicity and marketing developments that will impact their decision to license a book, or that may help them sell more copies of books that they have already licensed.

As has always been the case, the rights department is heavily involved in all aspects of a particular book. We attend publication board meetings to get a chance to indicate whether a title will be well received in international markets. We also take part in marketing meetings, where we take note of all marketing activities that may be relevant to our foreign partners. And then, on occasion, we have the pleasant and sweet surprise of titles that fail to meet expectations in our domestic market but go on to become mega- bestsellers in some foreign market, making a title highly profitable for us, even if it failed to sell many copies in the US.

All in all, foreign translation rights are a highly rewarding aspect of the publishing process. Not only they create additional revenue for the company, but they are also a source of pride for our authors, who are thrilled to see their books translated to several languages. They also give us the opportunity to view the bigger picture of global publishing. It is fascinating to note how it doesn’t matter whether it’s a publisher in France, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Israel, or Mexico — we are all facing the same challenges. Most importantly for us at Berrett-Koehler, having our books and our ideas out in the world in many languages, reaching thousands of additional readers, brings us closer to achieving our mission of “Creating a World That Works for All.”

Maria Jesus Aguilo is a native of Spain, and moved to California in 1993 after completing a professional publishing course at the University of Barcelona and an internship with Antonia Kerrigan Literary Agency. In 1996 she joined at Berrett-Koehler Publishers, an independent book publisher based in San Francisco, where she is in charge of its subsidiary rights program. Berrett-Koehler Publishers is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year – more information here.

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.