What About Foreign Translation Rights?

Steve and I have received a number of offers from foreign publishers to translate and publish Black Irish Books in other countries. We’ve—I hope tactfully—declined all of them.

It’s not that we don’t want our books to be available in every language around the globe. It’s that the old way (and still current way) of selling foreign rights is ludicrous.

We really aren’t in business to tear down the walls of legacy mainstream publishing. We’re two guys running a pizza shop. Are the future Formidable Five or Four irritatingly overbearing, overconfident, condescending and exclusionary? Of course they are.

But without them our culture would be in serious trouble. Could Robert Caro devote decades to creating the quintessential biography of the most complicated political figure of the twentieth century without Random House/Knopf/Doubleday supporting him? No way. Without Robert Gottlieb and Sonny Mehta holding back the accountants demanding repayment of advances for books not yet delivered, Caro would have had to be writing side pieces for magazines or quickie bios to support his family. And his Ahab-ian quest to get to the bottom of Lyndon Johnson would never have been possible.

Big publishing is hugely important. Steve could not be working on the multi-year monster project he’s fighting right now if not for big publishing. He just couldn’t afford to. And the book that he knew he was meant to write just could not come to life if not for the support of Adrian Zackheim and Penguin Group USA.

And let’s not forget the importance of having an overbearing villainous system out to destroy us. Is there a more compelling excuse for the hoisting of third pints of bitter beer to take the edge off of our struggles than the “man” holding us back? If there weren’t gargantuan corporate shape shifters road blocking undiscovered, unappreciated artists…who would be responsible for our lives of long suffering creative inertia?

Anyone who has read THE WAR OF ART, DO THE WORK or TURNING PRO knows the answer to that question. Yesterday, Seth Godin wrote about this very well and in far fewer words than I in his piece “Believing What We Want to Believe,” http://sethgodin.typepad.com/.

If we set aside our tankards and take a long hard look at our place in the world objectively, the fact is that Big Publishing can teach us long tail businesspeople quite a lot.

Don’t forget. We small timers can do any business deal we’d like without having to worry about how we’re going to make payroll next month. If a decision we make doesn’t work, maybe we lose a few dollars or get an emotional punch to the gut, but we don’t have to lay anyone off. This is the beauty of a cottage industry. We’re not in it to build an empire so that we can make the fortune 500.

And if you are in it to build an empire, paying attention to how things work and doing a little intellectual arbitrage about how that will change given new technologies is the stuff of people like David Sarnoff http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Sarnoff, Ted Turner, the Google guys, etc. Fortune 500 Hall of Famers.

So as little pushcart salesmen, let’s take a hard look at Big Publishing’s business practices and see if they make as much sense today as they did when they became industry de rigueur. The most obvious disconnection between current business practice and reality is the way publishers and agents are continuing to handle foreign translation rights.

Here’s how it has been done since the advent of modern global business…post WWII.

Publishing houses around the world either acquire world rights to a book or the agent for the writer handles them. Both do the same thing to sell them. They reach out to the gatekeepers (publishers) in other countries and try to convince them that the book they are selling is “hot.” They sell books as potential blockbusters or as “important” works of literature. They sell the middle of the bell curve. Not the backlist long tail.

There are a couple of big international publishing conventions. Big schmoozes between Americans with lots of product try and unload their stuff on their chain smoking and morning beer-drinking compatriots around the globe. The German based Frankfurt Book Fair in October is the place to be for adult trade publishing and the Italy based Bologna Book Fair serves the same purpose for children’s publishing.

Between fairs, there is a network of foreign publisher scouts based in New York who keep their eyes on the big sales. These scouts then pass along their recommendations for acquisitions to their foreign clients who usually act on their advice. That’s basically it.

The bottom line is that books must have great buzz among scouts or in Frankfurt to get foreign translation offers.

Once they do, the publishers and agents sell the foreign rights to books under almost the same terms as they do in the United States. That is, the foreign publisher pays a guaranteed advance against future book earnings (from royalties of 10% or less of that country’s retail cover price). The foreign publisher is required to pay for the translation of the work, printing, marketing etc. And for that privilege they receive volume rights. That is they have the right to publish in all of the same formats as the original English language publisher in their native tongue. Hardcover, paperback, eBook, Audio, serial rights etc.

And they keep these rights until such time as the book becomes “out of print” in that particular country. Now anyone who has sold his book to a publisher since the anticipation of the eBook market (the last twenty years or so) knows that the “out of print” clause is one only a publisher could love.

Until such time as someone challenges the language and takes it into a civil legal proceeding to be clearly defined, “out of print” will be the bane of book writers. The reason is that eBooks will never go out of print. So as long as a publisher has an eBook edition available, nailing down a reversion of the rights of a book back to the author is a fool’s errand.

As an agent, I play the fool all the time and I can tell you, it’s enough to make your blood boil. Even a paperback reprint edition of a ten-year-old first novel that sells less than 100 copies a year is considered “in print” as long as the eBook is widely available. That means the publisher continues to own the book and the writer cannot exploit.

As I’m sure you know, getting an eBook widely available takes about three hours of work and once it’s out there, it’s out there forever. So remember, once you sell your book to a major publisher, you’ll have one Hell of a time getting it back. Even if it performs poorly. Each book is its own lottery ticket and the publisher would be crazy to let them go. You never know when one will take off.

Two weeks ago I wrote about how Hugh Howey held on to his English language eBook rights in his deal with Simon & Schuster and of how important those rights are for long tail business owners https://stevenpressfield.com/2012/12/the-story-behind-the-random-house-gives-5000-bonuses-story/.

I think foreign translation rights should be treated with the same kid gloves.

Steve has quite a number of readers from around the world. And guess what? They buy Steve’s books in English directly from Black Irish Books. Could you imagine a future scenario in which we could hire our own translators and offer, say, the Spanish edition of THE WAR OF ART directly from Black Irish Books?  Spanish speakers could buy the Spanish language eBook directly from Black Irish Books and get the book instantly.

But what about physical copies of foreign translations?

Do you think that the print on demand technology available in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom will not migrate to Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Brazil, India, China, Japan?  (It probably already has but is just not online yet for long tail writers) What if—like Black Irish Books has done in the U.S., Canada, and the UK—we were able to load our print edition files at foreign POD companies too? That would mean that people in Brazil could go online and order a Portuguese edition of TURNING PRO from a Print on Demand Company with an online retail presence (Amazon.com is in the process of doing this all over the world) and get that book delivered to them in a few days.

Black Irish Books (like it is in the United States, Canada and the UK) would actually be the publisher in Brazil too. We wouldn’t have to sell Portuguese translation rights to a Brazilian publisher to meet the demand for Steve’s work. Instead, we could publish the book ourselves and for that effort, receive ten times as much revenue per copy sold than we would under the old model.

And we’d never be put in a position where we couldn’t get the rights to our books back because they were still “in print.”

Let’s face it, the only reason why Steve and I have received offers to publish THE WAR OF ART, TURNING PRO, THE WARRIOR ETHOS is because of the hard work Steve has done himself to build a multinational online community. Foreign publishers are now beginning to see the value inherent in Steve’s work and as smart business people, they know that they could tap into Steve’s community for pennies on the peso using the old deal model.

And because of “out of print” clauses they’d control his work from now until the end of time for a very modest sum. (Foreign offers rarely go higher than a couple of thousand dollars guaranteed). Or until such time as an international legal community was able to work out a reasonable definition of “out of print.”

The world is one big thing now, especially for intellectual property. We hear that all of the time…globalization…globalization…globalization. But where are we on that timeline really? For publishing, we’re just at the beginning. Now is the time to plan for a new paradigm.

Someone with a great broadband connection in Uzbekistan can get to www.stevenpressfield.com just as quickly as someone in the United States. Why not offer them an Uzbek edition alongside the English language editions? Why sell Uzbek rights to someone you’ve never met in the hopes that they’ll be able to find the guy who already logged onto your website? And then be compensated, if at all, with a few pennies?

We are just at the early days of the long tail business phenomenon in the English-speaking world. Imagine what a global long tail business will look like in ten years…five years…next year…next month…tomorrow. Now go out and make it happen.

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  1. Basilis on December 28, 2012 at 5:24 am


    Me and another member “of the clan” had mentioned something about that in a post of the past.
    [Is there a possible way to include translations of the current English works, and not create a big cost that will affect the long tail business? (or sth like that)].

    As time goes by, and we continue talking about that stuff, I believe now that it is possible!

    (Perhaps even without Print on demand service…)

    You control your destiny in the long tail business and you control the RIGHTS of you work. If you create/belong in a community, why should you deliver your “destiny” to someone else who sees the potentials of your efforts and wants actually to “take advantage of you”?

    Excellent post, many information to study here and consider (and perhaps reconsider. Things are changing very fast nowadays, don’t they?)

  2. Laura Stamps on December 28, 2012 at 6:50 am

    You make a very valid point. And this is the thing, isn’t it? I’ve been in the publishing business for over 25 years. I’ve lived it when paperback, hardcover, libraries, and brick & mortar bookstores where all there was. I’ve watched almost all my publishers go out of business in the last 4 years because they couldn’t dance fast enough with digital marketing changes. I went into ebook exclusively in 2010 and have never looked back.

    I tell people these days the book business is like the Wild Wild West. The old model for publishing was truly broken. With the rise of ebook it has crashed, burned, and its ashes will never rise like a magickal creature. Instead small publishers are rewriting all the elements of that broken model. Thanks so much for this post! I’ll bet many authors and small publishers have never thought to handle the foreign translations of their books themselves. Yet almost every author is creating a worldwide fan base through the social media marketing we do every day to sell our books. Why should we give away this piece of the pie in a traditional foreign rights deal? You’re right. It makes no sense!

    I look forward to seeing how you and Steve handle this process when you take the translation plunge. Thanks so much for this incredibly informative post!

  3. Amy Duncan on December 28, 2012 at 9:51 am

    I’m in the interesting position of being an American author living in Brazil. My book is already available in English on Amazon in the US, UK, and several other Amazon sites around the world in paperback (POD) and Kindle formats. At the moment, I’m translating the book into Portuguese with the help of a native translator. Amazon just opened up here in Brazil, and my book is already on it in English. I’m hoping by the time the translation is finished that POD will be happening here (maybe it is already…I just haven’t looked into it yet), and of course the Kindle version shouldn’t be a problem. I see endless possibilities.

  4. James Foxe on December 28, 2012 at 10:38 am


    Another great post (after the Hugh Howey/E.L James post).

    I’ve got a question and an observation.

    The observation is Hugh Howey again. His agent has sold foreign translation rights on the traditional method….and he is fine with both the sale AND paying an Agent 15% of the sale because he confesses that he just wouldn’t spend the time chasing that money himself. So as far as he’s concerned, it’s gravy.

    So the observation is that whilst in principle what you advocate is sound – in practice how many self published writers are really going to go down the translation road? Obviously everyone is different, and few self published authors are going to be in the position that Steve is in with 10 years of ‘brand building’ courtesy of The War Of Art – but for a lot of authors I think the potential return on arranging translations of your work may outweigh the time invested in doing it properly.

    With this in mind how about a third approach (as opposed to saying no and/or doing it yourself) – how about making a counter offer to foreign publishers and making a set period of time prior to reversion a contractual term. So say within 5 years of signing the contract, ALL rights in that language revert to the author unless a new deal is signed?

    That way you can get your work published in a foreign language without having the hassle of arranging the work yourself – and then if you take off in that period you have the option in 5 years time of taking your work back and THEN self publishing it.

    The worst case scenario is that the foreign companies say No – in which case you are back to walking away from the deal.

    Hope that’s of interest.

    • Shawn Coyne on December 28, 2012 at 11:06 am

      Hi James,
      All very valid points. I’ll just say this. If you think American publishers are hesitant to try new business models, foreign ones are even less amenable. Steve and I have tried to work out deals like the one you describe and we’ve been turned down flat every time. “That just isn’t the way we do business…”

      And another thing you have to think about is recourse. What if the publisher continues to sell your book even after the license period has ended? As noted above, it is the wild west and navigating international law is expensive and in many cases ineffectual.

      My advice is to hold on to your rights until all of this stuff is sorted out. But you are absolutely right. Foreign money as gravy for a huge bestseller makes sense. But if you have a backlist long tail book, every trickle of revenue is important and losing control of the trickles is to be avoided.

      • James Foxe on December 29, 2012 at 9:57 am


        Thanks for the answers and the advice. You’d think that publishing companies would have realized that it’s no longer the gold rush and that they need to change their strategies.

        Have a great 2013!

    • Scott Nicholson on January 29, 2013 at 6:08 pm

      You almost certainly wouldn’t own the rights to the translation under that scenario of rights reversion. At best, you’d get the right to find your own translator. It’s possible the publisher would ell you the rights to the file, but that would depend on many things–if they felt it was worth anything, they’d keep publishing.

  5. Nazar Kozak on December 28, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    Very interesting point of view. But have you consider the value of most “local” markets? I dont mean Germany, let’s take for example any East European country out of the EU. Most translations are published here with support of grands and patrons. Gifts brings profit not sales. If you sell 2000 or 3000 copies at price 5 baks per copy in couple of years you got “nationalwide bestseler”. It will not be profitable for you to hire a local translator and so on at least in several decades. And the most of population even intelectuals are not reading in English at all. So Steve’s art will not reach these people.

  6. Anne on January 3, 2013 at 5:23 am

    Not sure if this would be of interest to you but there’s a company in the UK that specialises in “out of print” books with foreign translations (and I do get what you are saying about ebooks never being out of print) but it just might be of interest to you..

  7. Louis Moak on January 11, 2013 at 5:16 pm
  8. Scott Nicholson on January 29, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    I’ve done that very thing–established myself as an international digital publishing company, with around 28 foreign titles published last year. Of course, I wasn’t getting any offers, so it wasn’t a conscious choice, just an opportunity. I;d sell the rights in countries where I didn;t want to bother venturing, but I don’t have to go that route–just another option.

    But there’s one vast unexplored trap door on the “in print” provision of digital books. No one has yet challenged that an ebook download is legally a license and not a book sale (since the file is not actually sold at all, since the buyer doesn’t “own” it.) Eminem just won a huge case on that very issue–the big difference between sale royalties (10ish percent) and license royalties (50 percent.) Big case looming for some eager wealthy author.

  9. John Broadwin on May 26, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Can a publisher in a foreign country publish its own English-language translation of a work they have already published in the language of that country? If a publisher thinks a book in its list would sell in the U.S. or UK, why couldn’t they have it translated and then market it? If not, why not?

    Thank you.

  10. バッグ ヴィトン on November 15, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    シャネル 財布 楽天

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