The Righteous Way to Sell Rights

I was apprehensive when I learnt that we were going to have classes on rights. Two things worried me—firstly, rights sounded like international law and, secondly, I was wondering if I could follow a French accent. In fact, I did not know that a rights department had its own niche in the publishing industry and was a potential source of revenue (5% income) for a publisher. Jennie Dorny’s lectures provided an insight into foreign rights in the publishing industry. The first day included an orientation on the nuances of the French publishing industry, which was substantiated by statistics (French publishing houses, annual turnover, employment, genres). Jennie started with the basics and went on to gear us for the ‘rights sales at the Frankfurt Book Fair’.

The three essential elements for foreign rights include:

(a) Income

(b) Influence

(c) Author (satisfaction)

As a foreign rights officer, one has to work with editors/publishers, mail PDF/proofs, ensure timely press releases and marketing, take trips to book fairs, keep a tab on print run with data from the commercial department, check with the accounting department and the legal department.

These skills should be imbibed to be a successful rights officer:

(a) Good memory

(b) A sense of priority

(c) Speed

(d) Writing skills

(e) Language skills

(f) Diplomacy

(g) Multi-tasking

(h) Trust

Deriving inspiration from her own personal experiences, Jennie elaborated on the day-to-day affairs in foreign rights—how to reply to emails, getting the right information from the foreign publisher, not mentioning the advance you are getting from another publisher (just say ‘good offer’), which emails to reply to and not reply to! She taught us to be discreet. ‘Don’t give hopes to the author until the contract is signed,’ she said. Jennie was very patient, especially when she answered all our questions relating to cover prices, royalties, advances and flat rates, and did not hesitate in writing all the cumbersome calculations on the board (at one point, she was literally on her knees scribbling on the board).

Jennie gave us an opportunity, in the form of a mock presentation, to present books at the Frankfurt Book Fair for selling rights to prospective foreign publishers. All you had to do was converse with her. I had decided to sell rights of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China to a French publisher. I had to do some research to figure out if this book would travel—the potential markets, whether the subjects dealt with in the book will be acceptable to the foreign country, what kind of rights we are offering the foreign publisher (primary or secondary), wooing the publisher with our sales figures. She was inquisitive, eager to learn about my book, very diplomatic and guided us through our deal. I heaved a sigh of relief when she said, ‘Do you have a copy, I’d like to read.’ But, when we were trying to formulate the ideal ‘mantra’ to sell rights, I was gobsmacked when Jennie said, ‘There is no recipe to sell rights. It may or may not work. Just believe in yourself and take the risk.’ After our presentations, we learnt that poems or a collection of short stories were a tough deal to crack in the rights department. Of course, a publisher gets excited when he gets more than one offer for a book. Jennie told us how auctions were held to get the best offer, well, for her it’s the most exciting time of the year. But unfortunately, it just seemed to happen twice a year or so if they were really lucky. She did not stop at that. She undertook, with great ardour, the task of discussing all the articles in a contract between publishers.

I was sceptical about a whole week of foreign rights, but Jennie’s classes have equipped me to venture out into this aspect of publishing, especially since I’m not a marketing or administration or publicity person. Foreign rights would definitely be a fun option to explore, especially since it can take you to different places. You feel elated that your book can travel and strike a chord with readers across boundaries.

Janani Govindankutty

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