Build a Foreign Rights Revenue Stream

Part One: How to Get Started

Bob Erdmann

Publishers have discovered that foreign rights sales can form an important part of their publishing programs, contributing ever-increasing amounts to their bottom lines. As the world has become smaller, foreign publishers have become more aware of the abundance of excellent books by American publishers, and a win-win situation has developed. American publishers have content in their books that foreign publishers need. Foreign publishers in nearly 400 countries are willing to pay to acquire rights for their countries to those books. And the best part is that your costs for generating a foreign rights revenue stream can be zero–with no money down.

A few years ago a rather well-known client of mine published a bestselling personal finance book titled. It implores individuals to create as many sources of income as possible through diversified investments of their assets. Could there be a better strategy for profitability for publishers than considering a book as a financial asset and broadening its base to create multiple revenue streams?

Successful publishers search for as many ways as possible to build revenue streams from their books. Bookstore revenues are an obvious stream, but often fickle. So smart publishers also sell to catalog houses, educational institutions, museum stores, book clubs, periodicals, special sales outlets, mass merchandisers, and foreign rights buyers.

Let’s define a foreign rights sale as the licensing of the right to a foreign publisher to reprint, distribute, and sell an English- or translated-language edition of a book for compensation to the licensor under stipulated terms and conditions.

What Foreign Publishers Are Looking For

The hot topics are psychology/self-help (which is always popular), business, personal development, personal finance, parenting, and anything with the word success in the title. Thousands of books on these topics have been published, so buyers abroad want books with unique angles, not just ho-hum, me-too books.

“Will it travel?” is a question we hear often, which means, Is the content universal, or appropriate just for America? Page count is also important. A 300-page book in American English would swell to more than 400 pages in German. Conversely, that same book would shrink to about 200 pages in most Asian languages.

Foreign publishers seek books that have excellent track records and are easily translated. The more work they would need to devote to their edition, the less interested they become. Although they prefer recently published books, it is most important that content be current and not likely to become obsolete quickly, like the content of travel books and computer books.

You can be proactive (by prospecting), reactive (by participating in book fairs), or both to start building your foreign rights revenue stream.

The Proactive Process

Select the countries you feel would be most receptive to a particular book, remembering that what seems obvious may not be true. In fact, for example, Germany and Japan don’t want books about World War II. And, perhaps surprisingly unless you’ve been active in foreign rights markets for a while, countries like China, Indonesia, Eastern European nations, and India are now active rights-buyers.

Although there are other resources, your best prospecting aid in the beginning will be International Literary Market Place. This is an expensive directory, published by R.R. Bowker, that you may be able to find at your library and that you can access online on a limited or fee basis (see It lists nearly all the world’s publishers by country. Within each listing you will find information on the kinds of books they publish and contact information. Create a short list of the countries and publishers that you will want to contact. You may also want to target foreign agents, who will charge a commission; they are listed separately in ILMP under “Literary Agents.”

Create a detailed Fact Sheet, including a small picture of the book’s cover. List the elements most important to a foreign publisher–U.S. sales, author credentials, compelling features, countries to which rights have already been sold, quotes from important reviewers, trim size, page count, copyright date, etc. Be succinct but thorough. Email the fact sheet to each selected foreign publisher and/or agent with a cover note asking them to contact you if they’re interested in your fine book. Interested publishers and agents will respond by asking for review copies.

The Reactive Approach

Proceeding reactively entails participating in the book fairs that are best for foreign rights activity. There are four:

Frankfurt International Book Fair: This is the granddaddy and most important of them all. Attended by 350,000-plus publishing people from every corner of the world, it is designed exclusively for buying and selling rights. If you can participate in only one fair, this is the one to choose. For more information:

London Book Fair: Primarily focused on British booksellers and the U.K. publishing industry, it has gained some importance for foreign rights. To learn more:

BookExpo America:  America’s book industry trade show has a section for meetings with foreign publishers and agents. See

Bologna Children’s Book Fair: If you publish children’s books, this is a place to be. More information is available at

You can execute a purely reactive foreign rights strategy by letting the foreign publishers come to you at these book fairs, but you will do best by targeting and researching likely prospects before you go and making sure you have a chance to talk with them while you’re there.

After You Get Them Interested

OK, you’ve proactively or reactively stimulated interest from foreign publishers and/or agents. They’ve requested review copies and probably asked for 90-day options while they reach their decisions.

Now you need to ship the book. Your best, most cost-effective shipping option is the U.S. Postal Service’s Global Priority Mail, which is available to most countries. It’s not nearly as expensive as FedEx, UPS, or Express Mail, but its packages will still arrive at most destinations within a week or so. Using cheaper ways to ship will mean that your book takes several weeks (if not months) to arrive, if it arrives at all.

Include a cover letter, asking the foreign publisher to confirm receipt of the review copy by email. Then follow up regularly. This is critical. Don’t be a pest, but keep in touch to prompt a decision, and maintain a status record of your follow-ups. I am always shocked at how many publishers go to the expense and effort of sending a book overseas and then sit back and wait, complaining that they “never heard anything.”

If you haven’t received confirmation that the book arrived after two or three weeks, follow up. Two or three weeks after you do receive confirmation, follow up again to see if prospects need more information or to relay some good news that will matter to them. When an option has only 30 more days to run, follow up once more to make sure they know the option is about to expire and to ask if they need a little more time. In other words, find legitimate reasons to keep in touch while pressing courteously for a decision.

Your prospect’s editorial people will decide whether they believe the book will travel and whether the content can be translated easily. The production people will determine printing, paper, and binding costs for their edition. The sales and marketing people will make judgments about whether it will sell in their country. And finally, the financial people will determine whether they can make a yen, peso, euro, mark, dinar, schilling, franc, yuan, renminbi, rupee, won, or two.

Responding to an Offer

If foreign publishers decide they do want to acquire the rights to your book, they will either make an offer or ask you for your terms. As in any negotiating situation, you should try to get them to make their offer first. Who knows, it might be better than you expected. Part 2 of this article, which will appear next month, will help you negotiate a foreign rights deal that is fair and reasonable for both you and the foreign publisher.

Publishing Consultant Bob Erdmann is a five-decade veteran of book publishing and a two-term past president of IBPA   Through his popular Foreign Rights Programs he has negotiated more than 3,500 foreign rights sales for clients. Visit to learn more, or contact him via or 209/586-1566.