Selling the rights to publish books in other countries is one of the great subterranean aspects of the Canadian publishing business, adding as much to bottom lines as it does to international reputations. There’s a whole government agency devoted to giving publishers a leg up, and international book fairs happen every month, from New Delhi to London to Beijing to the biggest of them all each October in Frankfurt. We asked Bob Dees, the publisher of Toronto’s Robert Rose Books, about his experience getting one of his books into the German market.
Do you try to sell foreign language rights for all your books?
No. There are certain titles that are clearly North American. For example, if you did a book with the Canadian Diabetes Association, it has its limitations, because there may be very specific information in a book like that that relates to the Canadian or North American market. You Are What Your Grandparents Ate [by former Globe and Mail columnist Judith Finlayson] had not just an international market opportunity, but it had a market opportunity in Europe that was larger than in North America because of a greater awareness of the subject matter of epigenetics [the study of biological mechanisms that turn genes on or off]. We came across a recent German edition of National Geographic devoted to the anniversary of the Dutch Hunger Winter and how it was still influencing the descendants of those who lived through it, subjects that are integral to You Are What Your Grandparents Ate. Our foreign language rights manager at the time, Nina McCreath, went online to find German publishers who specialized in this intersection of health and science and found four, and based on their responses, she booked appointments for Frankfurt 2018.
Then what happened?
We had sales materials prepared, about eight or 10 pages to give an indication of the design, which in this case is unique, and its capacity to attract a readership to the subject. And we had one edited chapter that we were able to share with them both in hard copy and electronic copy. We’re fortunate that English tends to be the language business is done in, even in Frankfurt. Even so, not everyone comes with an equal level of English, and we were even more fortunate there because Nina speaks fluent German. We were able to use that as a tool to create a more successful relationship with these potential publishers. Many publishers may use an agent who speaks the language in question. Having a foreign sales agent with at least a couple of extra languages is incredibly valuable.
How did this one get done so quickly?
We try to be an easy publisher to deal with for foreign language agreements. Big name publishers have a reputation for being difficult to deal with. It doesn’t mean we don’t try to get the best deal, but sometimes the legal departments can be problematic, some will take three or four months to do an agreement, and some publishers don’t want to wait that long. It took us probably about two or three weeks.
When a publisher is motivated, things can happen quickly. Translators can be paid more to work more quickly, that sort of thing. Nina took early retirement to run book clubs right after Frankfurt 2018, so with the help of our new rights agent, Parisa Michailidis, this process took just 12 months. We presented at Frankfurt in October of 2018, the book was in print in Germany by Frankfurt 2019, just three months after it came out in Canada. The usual timeline is probably 2.5 to three years.
How much does selling books into other countries affect Robert Rose’s bottom line?
It’s very beneficial for us to sell foreign language rights. There is a government program through Livres Canada Books [formerly known as the Association for the Export of Canadian Books] that provides travel subsidies, hotel subsidies to offset the cost of travel, and this is really instrumental in spreading foreign language rights sales across the world for Canadian books.
We find that just being active in the foreign markets outside of English gives us a much better understanding of trends in the market: subject trends; design trends; author trends. You have to be very careful about being on the wrong side of trends. The same applies to designer clothes and all sorts of things. I’m not trying to equate a book with designer clothes, but to some degree, we’re governed by the same forces.
And with this book, the speed we did the deal gave us an extra advantage. If you’ve done a German deal early in the process, you can say, “Well, we’ve already done a deal in Germany,” and it creates a sense for publishers in other countries, “Oh they thought it was good, I guess it must be.”
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