4 Key Trends Impacting Foreign Rights Agents

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Liana Suppressa

Liana Suppressa

By Liana Suppressa, Foreign Rights Agent, Atlantyca

Everyday life in a publishing house has always been — and always will be — a continuous match between challenges and stimuli, opportunities and failures. It’s almost fruitless to try to regulate and forecast every aspect. Especially sales.

Nowadays, the fact that the publishing landscape keeps evolving hour by hour is certainly not breaking news for people working in the industry. But it’s undoubtedly a phenomenon we have to pay attention to and continually monitor. Especially in sales (again!).

How can we face these hard times of changing buying habits and declining book sales? What are the new ways to respond to the crisis, create innovation and surf the change, even if this should mean heading away from traditional books and moving to new “book products”?

Publishing has never been short of innovation: the “Amazonization” phenomenon opened the way to completely new approaches to the traditional industry.

This past July, I traveled across the Atlantic to New Haven, Connecticut, to take part in the annual Yale Publishing Course, which tried to span the breadth and depth of this flux, providing some very interesting tools to analyze the current knowledge and research in publishing, offering students practical data to refresh and reinforce their comprehension of the book business, from production to marketing and distribution, with notions directly explained by international publishing and media experts. At the same time, it offered stimulating food for our thoughts to build a strategic vision and to guide along the change in the book world today and tomorrow.

As a Foreign Rights agent at Italian agency Atlantyca — where I represent Children’s and YA titles for several Italian publishing houses across the U.K., Nordic countries, Brazil, Turkey, Greece, Israel, Hungary and Poland — all these aspects have been extremely important to me because I always have to keep up on the new publishing opportunities, from the idea of a book to the shelves of a bookstore or a library. At the same time, I need to be business-oriented and move strategically among different scenarios to build valued propositions for clients.

This kaleidoscope of aspects of the international publishing scenery gave me the opportunity to develop the following thoughts on how the translation rights ecosystem will evolve — if it will evolve — in the next years:

1. Foreign rights revenue is both a global opportunity and a sales challenge.

International rights sales can be considered as a way for a Publishing House to diversify and expand its “arms” to the global market in terms of revenue. In a talk on“Creative Disruption in Book Publishing”, Yale School of Management professor Richard Foster said, “You compete against the global market, not against a single company,” so the diversification offered by foreign rights books can be a real strength point for publishers.

At the same time, selling translation rights from foreign languages (French, German, Italian to name some) into English-speaking countries is very ambitious: in USA, only 3% of the total of the books come from other languages’ translation rights. This is a very small percentage compared to some countries in Europe, like Germany, where this figure is around 40% (this was explained at the Yale course by David Godine, Publisher at David R. Godine Publishers, in his talk, “Strategies for Survival in an Age of Globalization”).

2. Publishers are going global to find growth.

The market operators are evolving along with  the changing global landscape. Gregory Miller, MD of Greenhill & Co., in his “A Wall Street Perspective on the Publishing Industry” panel showed that the trend of international growth is a key priority for many publishing houses, and that leading publishers are now diversifying operationally and geographically, including via acquisitions (for example, Penguin and Random House or Harper Collins and Harlequin).

Over the last few years, this trend can also be seen in Asia, where the Chinese market is growing in an incredible way. Two Chinese publishers are now among the top ten global publishers: Phoenix Publishing & Media Company is the sixth largest publisher with sales of $2.84 billion, an increase of 16% over 2013; while China South Publishing & Media Group is the seventh with sales of $2.58 billion, an increase of 31%. It’s interesting to note that China keeps growing in terms of acquiring licenses and translation rights from other countries, and Chinese publishers are keeping an eye on what’s trendy in Europe and the USA.

3. Marketing plays an important role in foreign rights sales.

One question came to my mind during the panel “Analyze, Mobilize, Socialize” by Kristin Fassler, VP and Director of Marketing at Ballantine Bantam Dell, and Leigh Marchant, VP and Director of Marketing at Spiegel & Grau: how can a publisher use marketing tools to bring people back to the books?

In their interesting talk, they took students step-by-step through the planning and execution of an integrated marketing campaign, giving good examples of what works and what doesn’t in engaging readers, for example through social networks. According to their data, in fact, 25% of the internet traffic in the USA is Facebook-driven.

Among the strengths that a book can have to be appealing to reader, and which can be exploited in marketing campaigns, they mentioned the foreign (international) editions of the book itself. In how many languages has the book been translated and sold so far? Sharing the international sales with foreign publishers can be very useful in order to demonstrate an author’s a global platform, but is it effective also to put the book in the hands of the readers? In my job as an agent, it’s always very important to show the amount of translation rights sales, but it’s equally fundamental to offer foreign publishers examples and suggestions — deriving from experience — on how to market the book in the best possible way, and build a strategy to attract readers.

4. We still need good books.

Foreign rights sales offer the potential for every kind of book to be translated, published and distributed in every corner of the earth. But what is the difference between a book and a “book product”? As Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives pointed out in his talk “Publishing in the Age of Globalization,”, in several markets there is a growing demand for books with high production values, but the most important thing remains the content, the story. “A book can be a place of refuge, escape, or reflection, offering a space for intense engagement with the world.”

Liana Suppressa is a foreign rights agent at Atlantyca, Milan, Italy, where she represents Children’s and YA titles for several Italian publishing houses across U.K., Nordic countries, Brazil, Turkey, Greece, Israel, Hungary and Poland. A graduate of Università Cattolica, she has five years of experience in sales in the publishing industry, and a background in marketing and communications.

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