Setting the world to rights
11.05.12 | Rachel Mills
“Well, the agent used to work in rights. . . " Accompanied with an exaggerated eye roll, I once heard this in an editorial meeting apparently to explain why an acquisition was proving complex and tedious. Why does "rights" sometimes get a bad press? I think it’s mostly to do with the name. To anyone outside publishing, mention your job title and they assume you have a law degree, while graduates think they want to do something more "creative".
But when we talk about selling rights, all we mean is the process of finding editors to publish authors. This is about reading and discussing books, discovering editors’ tastes and building relationships with them. Of course the contract and the deal terms are important, but the deals will only come as a result of the above.
It has never been easier to work with publishers in different countries. Travel is cheap, there are more book fairs than ever before, and of course it no longer costs hundreds of pounds in postage to submit a book round the world. Translation contracts tend to be far simpler than those for the UK, especially as many of the countries we work in still have Fixed Book Price.
Today the reality is that the author cannot live by UK advance alone. Part of our job is to work with writers to ensure that their books are as internationally appealing as possible, for simple financial necessity. Plenty of British authors see greater sales figures outside the UK, and plenty of international editors are completely happy to be the primary publisher, and will offer before there is a UK deal in place if they love the book. Trends are not always in sync—Trinny and Susannah, for example, are huge in The Netherlands at the moment having produced a TV show there, and so AW Bruna is in the process of designing a book with them aimed specifically at Dutch women. There is a creative challenge to finding more opportunities like this.
Authors should have a relationship with all their publishers, not just those publishing in their own language—it’s not difficult to arrange for the author to have a coffee with his German editor next time they’re in London. Seeing the close relationships that Jeanette Winterson, for example, has with her many loyal longstanding European editors is inspirational.
Perhaps most importantly though, in the world we live in today, I would question the value of a book that can only appeal to readers in one country. Good writing, with good translation, transcends borders (such as the wonderful Is That A Fish In Your Ear by David Bellos), and I think if a book can appeal to a reader in Taipei as well as one in Helsinki, that is a pretty good indicator that the author has tapped into something valuable and universal.