Selling Foreign Rights – It is easier than you think!

For most authors, whether traditionally published or self-published, the thought of selling foreign rights seems daunting. The common mindset is authors lack the capability to exploit foreign rights on their own. It was hard enough to sell the book in the U.S., right? Who can think about selling it internationally?

You can. Why? Because foreign rights can be valuable. For some authors, foreign sales usurp what the author makes from the initial sale in the U.S. For other authors, foreign sales diversify and expand earnings with minimal upfront costs. So pull up your socks. Sit down. And together we will hash out this big, scary topic.

What are Foreign and Translation Rights?

Foreign rights are the right to publish a book in its original language in countries different from those in which the book was originally published. Translation rights are the right to publish a book in languages other than the original language. If the book was published in the U.S. in English, then publishing in any other country other than the U.S., and in other languages other than English, would be considered foreign rights or translation rights, respectively. These two rights are different but related, and are often lumped together under the term Foreign Rights.

How do I get Foreign Rights?

Foreign Rights stem from the rights granted via your U.S. copyright, which for a U.S. citizen starts automatically the moment anything is written. As a brief reminder, these rights include the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, or display your work, or adapt it into new works.

As for international copyrights, there is no single international copyright law that applies in all the countries of the world.  Instead, most countries provide copyright protection to foreign creative works under certain conditions via a network of international treaties and conventions (that almost all the nations of the world have agreed to). Because of these international conventions and treaties, international protection is automatically extended once the U.S. work is created. For more info see my earlier article on International Copyright Protection.

How do I know if I still own my Foreign Rights?

For the traditionally published author, check your publishing contract. Foreign rights are assigned to the publisher under the main grant of rights clause. Typically, this clause includes a “Territory” that specifies the geographic region where the publisher is entitled to publish the book. This clause can also be restricted by a particular language for publication.

Most U.S. publishers want rights to publish the English edition of the book in the U.S., the U.S. territories, and Canada. Sometimes the territory will extend to other English-speaking countries, like the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and all British Commonwealth countries. Some of the larger publishers have international affiliates and will demand publishing rights in foreign countries in which they operate. Sometimes publishers ask for “world-wide rights in all languages,” which gives the publisher the right to sell the book in any language, anywhere in the world (i.e., all your foreign and translation rights). So read your contract carefully to determine what foreign rights you own and what rights you have licensed.

If the territory clause has not scooped up foreign rights, then look at the subsidiary rights section (which will include foreign rights, as well as rights like movie, audio, book club, and other rights related to potential publication markets). If the publisher has not grabbed the foreign and translations rights, then you have still retained your foreign rights.

For self-published authors, check your self-publishing services agreement or your POD provider to determine if you have given away your foreign rights. If so, then you will have to terminate the contract, or renegotiate those rights before you exploit your foreign rights.

How do I sell Foreign Rights?

There are a few avenues for authors to sell foreign rights.

1. If you have licensed your foreign rights to a publisher, the publisher usually markets your foreign rights through a foreign agent or at international book fairs (e.g., Frankfurt Book Fair, London Book Fair, and Book Expo America in New York City).

2. If you have retained your foreign rights, but have an agent, your agent can market your foreign rights through a foreign agent, hopefully one who specializes in the book’s genre and is well-connected in the international publishing world. Foreign rights agents should have an intimate understanding of the markets in which they represent work and have the ability to match books with foreign publishers who publish similar works. If your U.S. agent is well-connected abroad then add foreign representation into your agency agreement. If you want to cut out the middleman, you can go the DIY route and find a foreign rights agent or contact foreign publishers directly (see self-publishers below).

A few points to remember –

  • If you have retained your foreign rights, your domestic publisher may demand to share the income if you sell the rights yourself.
  • If you use multiple agents, one for domestic and one for foreign deals, make sure the commission structures do not penalize you. You should not pay a double commission, only an increased commission. A rule of thumb is five percent more than the basic agent commission.
  • With multiple agents, the agreements should be clear as to each agent’s role and authority.
  • Here is a great chart from a foreign rights agent about the process. I would add another segment to this chart, one that follows the self-publisher’s DIY approach (see below).

3. If you are self-published, you have several options for how to handle your foreign rights. Thankfully, the emerging opportunities for self-published authors have made exploiting foreign rights possible.

One option for the self-publisher is to contact foreign agents to handle all the foreign rights like a U.S. agent would do. This would require: 1) researching foreign rights agents and international book publishers to determine who would be a good fit (here are two resources for locating foreign agents and international publishers — The International Literary Market Place and IPR License); 2) sending the agent or publisher an email that sells your book. Include a summary of the book, reviews, endorsements, sales figures, and links to your website, and author page on Amazon. Offer to send a copy of the book should they be interested; and 3) negotiating and signing a contract with the foreign agent or publisher.

Another option for the self-publisher is to sell the English edition book to foreign markets via online retailers and local distributors. Online retailers like Amazon sell through Kindle in different countries allowing authors to distribute books to international markets in English (e.g. Canada, France, Germany, Italy Spain, Japan, Brazil, and the UK). Then you can use a foreign agent to sell the foreign and translation rights you are not exploiting. Or if you want to cut out the middleman and do the work, contact the foreign publisher directly regarding foreign publications. This may require networking at the international book fairs to have direct contact with foreign publishers. An author can also have their book translated, and then sell books directly to readers but this can be time-consuming and expensive. Unless you have the resources and time, this may not be the best option for most self-published authors.


One other point to consider before making your decision about foreign rights, not every book is suited for international publication. Research whether your content would appeal to foreign publishers and agents. Questions to ask yourself—Does the book have universal subject matter? Is it easily translated? Is it a popular international category like self-help, personal empowerment, or business related? Has the book gained notoriety, broad appeal, or high US sales?

If you then feel your book is ripe for international exposure, at least now you are more informed about how to proceed. If you need additional information, see these resources:

  1. Jane Friedman, Selling Your Books Internationally;
  2. Mindy Klasky, Foreign Rights: Contract Terms Made Easy; and
  3. How Authors Sell Publishing Rights, Helen Sedwick and Orna Ross (ALLi How-to for Authors Guidebook Book 4).

Photo Credit: Wouter de Bruijn | Visual hunt | CC BY-NC-SA


Legal Disclaimer: The information in this article is for educational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice or establish an attorney-client relationship. I am a writer, who is also a lawyer, helping other fellow writers learn about publishing law related issues. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation. For our full Sidebar Saturdays legal disclaimer, click here.

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