Sunday, April 18, 2010

“My agent is unwilling to sell world rights to my book. What should I do?”

"I think my book's topic resonates with people from other cultures. I know it does--several readers from other countries have contacted me. I used that fact to buttress my request in asking my agent to please try to sell foreign rights. (They never came up initially.) My agent doesn't seem to think it would sell well in other countries and won't try. My publisher says it's not their job. I'm disappointed and aggravated. Your thoughts, please?"

--question asked by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett on behalf of The American Society of Journalists and Authors. Barbara is host of “Writers on Writing,” a weekly radio show airing on KUCI-FM (88.9) in California

Whenever an agent negotiates a book deal with a publisher, a few major issues are negotiated immediately (usually, verbally), such as the advance, royalties, delivery schedule and payout, and major subsidiary rights, like translation and UK rights. (Dozens of smaller issues will also be negotiated later, during the contractual process.) Thus before the contract is even issued and the deal signed, your agent will know whether he or the publisher will be controlling the world rights to your book.

Publishers will often want to control world rights, because it is to their advantage to do so. If a publisher sells world rights, they will make a commission off of each sale and more importantly, any foreign income will be lumped into your royalty account and never paid to you unless you first earn back your royalties—thus giving a publisher security should your book not sell in the U.S. But agents will also want to control world rights on your behalf. It is a negotiation. In some cases, publishers will end up controlling them; in others, agents. For example, a publisher might offer a major six or seven figure advance, but insist that such a high advance is predicated on their controlling world rights. In other cases, the advance offer may be low, and the agent may insist that the publisher can only acquire the book for such a low advance if the agent can control world rights. In some cases, three publishers might offer matching or similar advances, but one of them may be willing to give up world rights, and that may be what makes the difference. In some cases, the world rights may be very valuable (for example, with a book about European history), while in other cases, world rights may be unlikely to sell at all (for example, a book about American history), and this will affect the publisher’s or agent’s fervor in fighting for them.

If an agent ends up controlling world rights, then it is the agent’s responsibility to shop them around the world. Most U.S. literary agents engage co-agents based in the major bookbuying countries of the world; once they sell a book for which they have retained world rights, they will contact all of their agents, let them know of the sale, and ask them if they would like to represent the book in their territory. If particular co-agents in particular countries don’t feel that the book would be successful in their country, then there is not much the primary agent can do; but the primary agent must at least query these co-agents and try.

In your case, you should ask your agent if he has done this. If he says no, and if he refuses to even query his co-agents, then you should ask him to write you a letter which formally reverts the foreign rights back to you and which absolves his agency of any commission for foreign sales. (Your publisher is correct in saying that it is not their job if your agent controls the rights.)

Once you have the rights back, there is not much you can do on your own; international co-agents will rarely want to do deal directly with authors on individual books, as they prefer to deal with established literary agents with whom they have dozens of deals. But if you ever switch literary agents down the road, then at least you will have the legal right to allow a new agent to shop the foreign rights to this book. Agents will rarely want to represent someone merely for the sake of representing foreign rights for a particular book, but if you write a second book, and a new agent wants to represent that in the U.S., then he might also want to represent the foreign rights to your previous book.

Perhaps most importantly, all of this points to the fact that your current agent is not doing his job if he will not at least ask his co-agents to represent your book overseas. If that is the case, consider switching agents for your next book. Keep in mind, though, that foreign rights are not always easy to sell (it varies greatly, depending on the genre), and it may be that your agent ran it by his co-agents and they rejected it. Don’t make assumptions until you’ve gathered all the facts.


  1. This is a very timely post for me. I just got an agent in New York who is representing my book Lessons from the Monk I Married, which is also the name of my blog. My blog already has an international following and I think, because of the subject matter of my book, it will be well received internationally. This is helpful to know in advance before a book contract is negotiated. Thank you for posting this.

  2. Dear Mr. Lukeman...I have a question.
    My agent of 1-1/2 yrs. and I recently terminated our contract. He submitted my literary novel to twenty editors during his representation, some who were clear in their feedback that my work was not a fit for their taste or house. His last submission was June 2009.

    Last fall I decided to revise and re-edit the book because I’ve grown as a writer and I saw a consistent thread in some of the editors’ comments that I felt I could address. My agent had little comment on the revised work, but said he didn’t think he could help me.

    I believe in my book, and have garnered Advance Praise from several respected authors. And I need a new agent. What is the protocol for querying in this situation? Do I send a query and tell them I've been represented on a "version" of this manuscript after they express interest? Or tell them up front in the initial query, which sounds like suicide?

    Thank you for considering my question.

  3. Mr. Lukeman, thank you for giving so much to authors who aspire to publish.

    Have you written anything regarding writing a good synopsis (i.e., something along the lines of your HOW TO WRITE A GREAT QUERY LETTER: INSIDER TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FOR SUCCESS)?

    Your advice is well-taken. Thanks again.

    P.S. Katherine, way to use Mr. Lukeman's generosity to disingenuously market your own blog. You remind me of a word that rhymes with "shore."

  4. Hello there

    Thanks for your incredibly informative blog. What a great idea - it's hard enough writing a novel and getting close to representation without trying to navigate the choppy waters of agenting etiquette.

    I have a question: I've recently won an end of year prize for our MFA in Creative Writing. Normally part of the prize is representation by the sponsoring literary agency and indeed, they have been in touch and asked to see more pages (my novel isn't completed yet). The agent has said he is 'excited to work with me on this', but hasn't suggested meeting up or signing any kind of contract.

    I'm a little confused as to what to tell people if they ask if I've got an agent. My understanding is that the agent and I will work together to bring the book up to publication scratch, but it doesn't seem like I've actually received a formal offer of representation.

    Do agents sometimes not offer contracts straightaway? Or does the lack of contracts mean that he is still making up his mind about representing me? I don't feel I can wade in and ask him because if he is still making up his mind about me, then I don't want to appear too demanding.

    Thanks so much for your time.

  5. Hi.
    My questions are on nonfiction proposal so it's related to publishing?

    I know that it is common for authors to use a pseudonym when writing fiction but I was wondering how a nonfiction writer using a pen name would write a proposal.
    In terms of the cover letter and the author bio section, how would the author write his or her name? Would it be their official name with their pseudonym mentioned or do they just ignore their real name altogether?

    Also, if the book is going to be a hybrid of chapters written by the author and interviews/articles by other people, most likely online personalities, how would the writer mention it in the proposal? Do the author need to get permission/confirmation from the other people before submitting the proposal to agents/publishers or is that something that can be later scheduled once the proposal gets picked up?
    (An example of this "hybrid nonfiction", the format not the topic, is Camilla Morton's How to Walk in High Heels: The Girl's Guide to Everything.)

    Finally, do age really matter? I understand that in terms of professional and specialized nonfiction, an older, more experienced author's chances of selling a proposal is higher than a teenager's but does that apply for all nonfiction? Would the age of the writer heavily influence the rejection rate of the proposal?

    Thank you in advance.

    P.S. I can't believe I found out about your blog just now! I used to read THE FIRST FIVE PAGES cover to cover before I lost it :(

  6. Dear Mr. Lukeman,

    I am a mere twenty pages into "The First Five Pages" and Chapter Two has already rescued the first paragraph of my book. It was so inspiring that I had to stop and write a blog post about it immediately.

    I can't wait to devour the rest of the book and wanted to thank you for writing it!

  7. Dear Mr. Lukeman,

    My question is regarding submission guidelines. I have a book that is not a traditional novel, but a "greeting card" book. Each page is a pictures or illustrations with a line of text on it. How would I submit this type of book to an agent or publisher?


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