An indie author’s guide to selling foreign rights

foreign rights for indie authors

Every author dreams of seeing their book translated into many languages so that readers in far-off lands can enjoy and learn from it. But how does an indie author sell their publishing rights abroad? And what can a traditionally published author do to be sure they are getting the best deal?

I asked Kelvin Kong, Rights Manager for Toronto-based agency The Rights Factory, to explain how book rights are sold into foreign markets.


What exactly are foreign language / foreign territory rights? What are the various components that can be bought, sold and licensed?

Foreign language/territory rights are publication rights for a book in another language and/or geographic territory. The territory tends to be the place of origin for the publisher making the offer: Hungary for Hungarian rights, UK/Commonwealth for a UK publisher buying from a Canadian publisher, etc., but it isn’t always that simple. Spanish-language rights may cover a wider territory that includes a number of Spanish-speaking countries, while territory rights for the Indian Subcontinent may include the right to publish in a range of languages spoken there.

The main asset changing hands in this transaction is the text, but cover design can also be acquired should the purchasing publisher want to use a pre-existing cover.


Who usually sells the foreign rights to a book?

This depends on who holds the rights, according to the original publishing deal. Publishers who take world rights will sell rights if they have the resources. If the author is represented by an agent and they’ve kept the translation rights, then the agency sells them. Some authors can sell their own rights, but that would be more on a passive basis (where publishers approach them), since the author might not have the international publishing network needed to actively sell, as a publisher or agency does. Of course, there are exceptions and special arrangements, like an agent selling on behalf of a publisher. (This happens if the publisher holds the translation rights, but doesn’t have the resources to actively pursue rights sales).

Chances are that a publisher or agent will be selling through a subagent, who is a person selling directly in another market. That person has stronger relationships with editors and a better knowledge of the laws and trends of their particular market, so they know how to get the book into the right hands.


Can an indie or self-publishing author sell their own rights? If so, how? 

It’s tricky. As mentioned above, rights-selling requires access to a network of international publishers and knowledge about who the editors are and what they’re looking for. This takes an exhaustive amount of research. Even with that, authors who are self-publishing still have less cachet in overseas territories, although this is slowly changing. If the author has a book that’s done amazingly well locally, and the material is universal enough for overseas markets, then a subagent might be interested in helping the author sell the book.


If an author is being published traditionally, can they hold back their foreign territory rights, and does it make sense to do so?   

It depends. If the author is represented by an agent, it’s usually the default in negotiations to hold back as many rights as possible, since any sales the agent makes for the author will be direct income, so they’ll get the money faster. However, if a publisher makes an offer that is attractive enough, or if the publisher has a very strong rights team, then they may be more successful at selling the book, in which case it makes sense for the author to give those rights to their publisher.


How much money do foreign rights sell for, and how does an author know if they’re being offered a good deal? What other terms should authors be aware of?

Advances depend on the publisher, and more importantly, the market. Some markets can afford more than others. It takes experience and knowledge of the international market to know how much a given publisher in a given territory can afford.

Revenue splits will depend on the publisher. If an advance is low, then the author, if they’re negotiating on their own behalf, can negotiate other things like better royalty rates, term of contract (the norm is now 5 to 7 years), and the territory.


What commission does a rights agent make?

Traditionally speaking, agents repping authors take 20% on foreign rights deals. If the book is sold through the agent’s subagent in a territory, the subagent’s cut comes from the agent’s commission, and that’s usually 10%, so the agent makes 10%.


What are the best foreign markets to try to sell rights to? Does it depend on the category of the book?

It totally depends on the category of the book. Business books tend to sell well in China and Korea. European publishers will buy books too, but they’re much more discerning.


Who do you work with—indie authors, publishers?

It depends on the book. We tend to pick what we fall in love with, including fiction, nonfiction and children’s books. That said, my own list is officially closed, so I’m not open to unsolicited submissions. Our website has our agent bios and a contact form that will direct author submissions to the right person.


Kelvin Kong is Rights Manager at The Rights Factory.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

To learn more about foreign rightssign up to our mailing list here.

Maggie Langrick

One Response to “An indie author’s guide to selling foreign rights”

  1. “Can an indie or self-publishing author sell their own rights? If so, how?”

    First, I detest the term “indie” author. I have been a self-published author since 1989 and started selling foreign rights to my books in the mid 1990s. David Chilton (author of the million-plus-copy selling “The Wealthy Barber” and regular on Dragon’s Den) recently called me leaving a message saying, “Ernie, you are one of the few self-publishers who knows what he or she is doing.”

    Here is one of the reasons David said that: I now have 114 book deals with foreign publishers around the world without having used the services of a North American rights agent. My books are published in 22 languages in 29 countries. I have accomplished this by doing what the foreign rights agents don’t do — instead of what they do. I have just self-published my “Life’s Secret Handbook (Reminders for Adventurous Souls Who Want to Make a Big Difference in This World)” in a limited Pu-Leather Edition that has price on it of $97 US / $127 CAN. This is an ego project that cost me $10,000. Just watch me, however, sell foreign rights to this book to at least six publishers and earn at least $10,000 to $20,000 in return. There will be a lot more benefits from this ego project that most self-published authors and so-called book marketing experts will never figure out.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    International Best-Selling Author, Innovator, and Unconventional Career Coach
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 350,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 300,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

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