Discussion About Foreign Rights: “All Things Book Marketing” Podcast

In this episode of the “All Things Book Marketing” podcast we talk to Ashley Mabbitt, who has been in foreign rights in publishing for nearly 20 years. We discuss the Frankfurt Book Fair, what questions authors should be asking about foreign rights, what markets are growing fastest and how foreign rights has changed in the last 5 years.

TRANSCRIPT:

Welcome to the Smith Publicity, All Things Book Marketing podcast. The best tips, insights and advice from the best in the publishing industry.

Mike Onorato:
Welcome to the All Things Book Marketing podcast. I am your host, Mike Onorato, and today I am very happy to welcome our guest Ashley Mabbitt, who is the Director of International Rights and Business Development at a publisher. I used to work with Ashley way back in a previous life and here we are today. The topic of our discussion will be foreign rights. What is foreign rights, what authors need to know about foreign rights, but I wanted to start, Ashley, first of all, welcome. But I wanted to start with Frankfurt. You’re fresh back from Frankfurt, so maybe that’s a good place to begin our discussion on foreign rights.

Ashley Mabbitt:
Yeah, thank you so much for inviting me to participate in your podcast, Mike. You’re absolutely right. Frankfurt is the access upon with the whole year revolves if you are in foreign rights like I am. It’s funny because there’s quite a bit, especially people who’ve been to Frankfurt a number of times, there can sometimes be a bit of grumbling. It’s not known as the sexiest city in Europe to be sure and then you have some people who’ve been there 40 years in a row kind of thing and they feel quite proud of that, some of them, as they well should. It is quite an accomplishment.

Ashley Mabbitt:
Then I think there are people who manage to keep the perspective that it really is a totally unique and amazing event and I think what can sometimes happen, especially if you’re selling rights for a large publisher or agency, you feel as if you go there and you are in so many meetings and they’re 30 minutes a piece or if somebody turns up late they become 20 minutes a piece and you barely have time to stuff a sandwich in your face, let alone go to the bathroom. It really can become like that. So it’s almost like I could be anywhere. It doesn’t make any difference, but.

Mike Onorato:
So Ashley, to interrupt for a moment because my exposure to foreign rights is BookExpo, right?

Ashley Mabbitt:
Yes, that’s right.

Mike Onorato:
So if you can just maybe for those folks who have been to BookExpo in years gone by but have not been to Frankfurt, maybe just give in terms of overall, is there more business trends active in Frankfurt or is it, if you can kind of lay that land.

Ashley Mabbitt:
Yeah. Sure. I would say it’s kind of like BookExpo times 30 and the thing about BookExpo is, it is by and large a pretty US-centric conference. Sure you have some international visitors, but in my experience folks from overseas usually take that as an opportunity to go and visit publishers in New York in their offices and have longer conversations.

Ashley Mabbitt:
But Frankfurt really is, yes, there is one section of it that’s really about the German book publishing industry and you have authors doing readings and interviews and they’re on television in the evening. That’s the other thing about it for the public. They’re very aware of that. So they get to participate more and experience more.

Ashley Mabbitt:
In terms of publishing people who go there, there are people from absolutely everywhere. I had a colleague at a previous publisher who was invited to a party on a Latvian collective stand and she went there and it was a whole group of Latvian publishers who all had one collective stand. They invited her to partake in their special Latvian version of bathtub gin basically.

Ashley Mabbitt:
But there’s quite a lot of a feeling of there are just so many people from every corner of the world who make an effort to be there and it can be quite far away and it’s very expensive as well. So really if you have an idea that your book has relevance throughout the world, then Frankford is really where it needs to be positioned.

Mike Onorato:
We’re getting a little bit of a scratching sound, Ashley, I don’t know if that’s something on your end, maybe on a table or something, just maybe, yeah. It’s interesting that you mentioned that’s one of the questions that I have but I wanted to talk through and that’s maybe parts of the world or global territories where foreign rights seems to be a little more prevalent and that thing.

Mike Onorato:
But what I wanted to say is, and again, I’ve never been to Frankford so I’m assuming and I want you to correct me, I’m assuming it’s less book promotion I.e, here’s the big book for the fall or the book for this or for that and it’s more transacting business. It’s more to your point filling your calendar and your schedule with meetings that is again, transacting business. Is that a fair assessment?

Ashley Mabbitt:
Yes, and I think, well it’s no coincidence that Frankfurt book fair is timed right around the same week that they are announcing the Nobel prize winners in Sweden and what people, editors, especially acquisitions editors are attempting to do when they go to Frankfurt is they’re trying to get a scoop. They’re trying to buy something based on a proposal. So this is not something that is being released to bookstores in October. This is something that’s maybe going to be released a year from now or even later but this could be a big fiction release.

Ashley Mabbitt:
Four, five years ago, the Scandinavian crime fiction craze was still very much going on and that’s gone away now. So there are a lot of trends, but it’s getting your finger on the pulse of what’s the new hot thing, where’s the three or four page proposal? Who has it and how can I get it? Because the thing is you can only have one translation of a book per language per market.

Ashley Mabbitt:
In Spanish, you can split it and you could have one publisher in Spain and you could have another publisher in Latin America for instance. But by and large, if there’s going to be one Norwegian translation, Norway was the guest of honor this year. There’s going to be one region translation of a book and it’s a really hot book. You’ve got to find the agent who has the rights and you’ve got to make your offer.

Ashley Mabbitt:
So that’s what Frankfurt is about and really it starts even before the fair because the tradition is that agents go to a hotel lobby, the Frankfurter Hof, and they get there really early and they find some little corner somewhere that they can claim as a space. They have meetings there all day long and that’s before the fairer even starts. So if you’re not plugged into that, you’re going to miss out or that’s the perception at least is that editors are going to miss out if they’re not clued into that kind of thing.

Mike Onorato:
Wow, sounds like the old days of meeting for a martini lunch, and transacting business there. So to take a step for a moment, for those listening and for my own benefit and not to put you completely on the spot here, but just what is foreign rights?

Ashley Mabbitt:
Yeah, that’s a good question. I was thinking about this and I have a metaphor to propose and you’ll have to tell me if it actually makes sense, but imagine if you want to buy a new frying pan, you want to buy a new 14-inch frying pan and you find that really the one that you want comes as part of a whole set of pots, pans, all kinds of things. You get this and you realize that you’re not going to use anything but the 14-inch frying pan and you know that out there in the world there is somebody who could use the small frying pan, the soup pot, whatever it is that you’re not using.

Ashley Mabbitt:
You also realize you could make money on that. So it’s kind of like a, for new Yorkers, a stoop sale or a garage sale. If you’re from Chicago, like I am. But that’s in a sense what it is because the truth of the matter is that if you are a publisher working with English language content, you probably have bought world rights in English, but in all other languages to this particular book, but you yourself have no way, sure, you could hire a translator from Spain who could translate the book into Spanish, but then what are you going to do with that?

Ashley Mabbitt:
You don’t know the wholesalers, the retailers, you don’t know how to go about getting publicity for a Spanish edition, all of that stuff. You realize somebody else could do it better. So by licensing those rights, you can get money for yourself and for the author. It’s worth mentioning too that quite a lot of foreign rights business is done by authors agents rather than by publishers.

Mike Onorato:
That’s actually a great point because a lot of the folks that we work with that Smith, most of the authors come to us without agents. So one of the things that I wanted to get into a little bit today is what do some of those authors do? What are next steps for them and it does seem as if that the gatekeeper, the first hurdle they need to jump is an agent to plow the field for them.

Ashley Mabbitt:
Yeah. I think that for authors just starting out, obviously the main focus is going to be on getting an agent, getting the book published in its original language. But on the other hand, I would say that sometimes we sell books, we sell rights to overseas publishers based on the profile of an author. But sometimes it’s a really compelling idea, a kind of book that doesn’t already exist in the market that an editor just falls in love with.

Ashley Mabbitt:
So it’s tough, but it can happen. I would say that one thing that’s really important is even the publishers where I’ve worked, very often authors haven’t, either their agent has not really paid a lot of attention to it or they have not paid attention to what their contract is saying about rights. We sometimes have authors who have an assumption that they will be consulted before we license foreign rights.

Ashley Mabbitt:
Unless a contract specifically says that, we don’t do that as a general rule or we get all the way to the point where a translated edition is released and an authored really doesn’t like the look or the style of the Chinese edition, but they didn’t specify in their contract I want approval on the cover. So that’s really important to pay attention to what the subsidiary rights clause in your contract is saying.

Mike Onorato:
What sorts of things help you sell rights? I’m asking because I remember this, is it a certain types of public relations activities? Is it a media hit? Is it some marketing things? What are some of the ancillaries that help you guys sell foreign rights in when you’re going after it?

Ashley Mabbitt:
I think there are the authors who have such a recognizable name that whatever specific marketing or publicity activities are happening for that book are not quite as relevant. There are also authors who are not as well-known around the world, but they have a really interesting book and relatively short book as well. It’s expensive to hire translators. They usually have to pay per page. So having a 600-page book is not ideal.

Ashley Mabbitt:
Then also it’s amazing to me, but this happens a lot, a lot more than I would have expected. An author is very active in other countries with speaking engagements and conferences and things, they tell us or they tell their editor a week before, two weeks before they’re going on a trip. I think there’s no way you just booked that plane ticket yesterday.

Ashley Mabbitt:
If you had told us eight months ago, six months ago that you were planning to do this, sometimes there’s already a translation that we’ve licensed or we might have been able to go to publishers in that market and to say, hey, this author is going to be there. It’s going to be at a conference. You could buy the rights, you could do the translation. You could sell the books at that event, you could interview the author, you could invite him or her to events in your market because that’s one of the challenges with translations is for the most part, they don’t have the author there to do readings and interviews and so forth. So if they actually aren’t going to be there, that’s really something that can be taken advantage of.

Mike Onorato:
Are there certain genres that do well?

Ashley Mabbitt:
Yeah, that’s interesting. Now, I don’t work with fiction as much myself, but I have spoken with people just recently, even last week in Frankfurt who told me that fiction is getting more difficult. Of course, your Stephen Kings are never going to be difficult, but the mid list authors, unfortunately it seems like translation publishers are less willing to take a risk, which is really a shame. You know what I mean? It’s not their fault of course, and in terms of nonfiction, it really depends on the trends happening in the market.

Ashley Mabbitt:
I was actually in Seoul, South Korea in January and it used to be, people in South Korea work incredibly hard. They work really long hours. They’re very dedicated to their families in general and so it used to be that they wanted books about telling them how they’re going to be successful, how they’re going to be wealthy, just how can they make it all happen. Now there’s a different vibe there where people want mindfulness and they want these kinds of topics.

Ashley Mabbitt:
They want to enjoy their lives as well as working hard. Science also, trendy kinds of books that help people understand some topic of science that’s really trendy but difficult to wrap your head around somebody who can do that in an understandable and compelling way. That’s also always interesting. Some things that are more difficult or current affairs, especially as you would imagine American politics. There’s a certain amount of interest, but to translate an entire book can be difficult.

Mike Onorato:
Well, that was actually what I was thinking in terms of the genre question because it must be difficult. A lot of subject matters don’t translate into other languages. I’m sure our political system is a very unique one around the world. So I was wondering if there’s ever a problem because a book might be too American or it might be too British or whatever we’re saying here and you might run into some roadblocks.

Ashley Mabbitt:
Yeah, that’s true. Where I am, we have a lot of different books coming out and some of those books, they really are meant for a US audience and so that’s what they’re going to do. But other books we identify as ones which have potential to travel. Those are the ones that we promote because we can’t promote everything. Not everything will work. We have to be credible for our customers.

Ashley Mabbitt:
Our customers are very savvy because there are acquisition editors and that’s a subjective choice for them. It’s also based on what’s happening in the market, but they’re the experts. They’re the experts on their markets. But having said that about the American system and politics, there’s interest in some territories about what is happening, what can we expect from the current American administration and so books that will give some kind of insider perspective that can be desirable.

Mike Onorato:
I wonder if we could take a step back and you could maybe give us a sense of how the foreign rights landscape has changed in the last year. In the last five years, even since we began working together in the early to mid 2000s, how has it changed from your perspective?

Ashley Mabbitt:
I think in some ways it hasn’t changed very much. I know that there are… Over the years, there have been offerings of digital platforms and other tools to sell translation rights. I think those have struggled to take off even though some of them are really good. There are a couple that are having more success. There’s a platform called the IPR, which is backed by Frankfurt Book Fair itself, which is being used. There’s also another one called PubMatch, which I think is really helpful but it’s still done by hand.

Ashley Mabbitt:
I think it’s more common that authored agents that others retain rights and that agents handle them, that seems to be more common. But I would say that, it really does come down to an editor overseas having a book pitch to them or finding a book out themselves that they really would like and then pursuing it. It’s really about someone who has a passion for a particular genre of style of book and is looking to build the best program that they can and is willing to look at books from other markets.

Mike Onorato:
Interesting, and is there anything that self published authors should keep in mind when it comes to foreign rights or be aware of or any other tips that can be shared with them?

Ashley Mabbitt:
I would say use your professional network and even your personal network in creative ways. I would say LinkedIn can be a really terrific tool and I think you’ve got to make a pitch that shows you understand the trends and the needs in a market and that you understand maybe there’s a publisher in Brazil for instance, who’s done quite a lot of titles that you feel your book really speaks to. So I would say if you can contact that publisher and show them that you know something about their program and you’re not just sending it out blindly, I would say that that’s really important. We have a few self published authors who we have now where I work and that I’ve seen previously.

Ashley Mabbitt:
They’ve used a self published book as part of their platform, their professional platform. So something that showcases that is really important to say this is, because editors are looking for authors with platforms. So often it’s hard to get publishers to do a lot of publicity and a lot of authors have to organize that themselves. Any publisher who can sign up a book with an author who already has connections is going to be attractive. It’s a safer bet.

Mike Onorato:
Boy, you just said a phrase earlier that I think is so crucial and that is utilizing an author’s network and it’s such an important thing and obviously clearly in foreign rights, but also in other avenues of promotion to use that really big umbrella term. It’s to utilize that tap into that. Oftentimes you have the ingredients at your disposal, just not the recipe to pull it all together. So realizing that network can be crucial on it. Actually you and I were in meetings where we heard a lot about author platform and how important it was. For publishers, they count on that built in network built into promotional plan outside of what they plan to do, right?

Ashley Mabbitt:
Yeah, exactly. I think in foreign rights and this could be more general for authors as well as, self authors, but any author, don’t sell yourself short. It can be so competitive. But if you go into it with a philosophy of scarcity, I’ve seen many authors who have been contacted by an independent translator, someone who does this freelance and they say, well, I would love to translate your work. It’s so amazing but I don’t have any money and I’m an independent translator.

Ashley Mabbitt:
Then you get a note from the author saying well this person has no money but they are willing to translate my book and they’re going to be able to do great things. Well, it’s not realistic. We don’t even license rights to individual translators. So think of it as if it were your dearest friend you were advising. Would you want them to sell their books, all their hard work to somebody who really isn’t capable of delivering what they’re promising? No, you wouldn’t. You have to keep that in mind for your own self.

Mike Onorato:
We talked about this and we touched on it earlier. Are there certain global… Well, there’s only one globe. Are there certain areas around the world where either foreign rights is exploding, taking off or have you noticed perhaps an EB in foreign rights in a certain global market?

Ashley Mabbitt:
I think that one area was talked about a lot last week in Frankfurt and is being talked about a lot in general is audio. We are keen to see what happens with audio in non-English speaking markets. There was a really interesting audio summit last week in Frankfurt, which was very well attended and I went myself to find out more. French and Russian were talked about as markets that are emerging and Spanish was also talked about as a market that’s become really important both in Spain and in the US and there was talk of the particular kinds of Spanish language audio that appeal to folks who live in the US and they want to stay connected with their home, their native language and culture, so that’s very interesting.

Ashley Mabbitt:
I think that whereas ebook was a big trend maybe 10 to 12 years ago and it was growing very fast and then it flattened out, I don’t know if audio will continue at the same pace, but it’s a different experience from ebook. It’s distinct and whereas I think ebooks are just a poorer relation in a way to reading a print book. So I think that’s going to be something to watch.

Mike Onorato:
A technical question based off of that; is it more challenging to find a translator for an audio book versus a print one where you can find somebody that can translate a book as you mentioned, per page or whatever it might be, but to get somebody to actually speak about it is that more of a challenge and therefore, is it even more remarkable that it’s been growing the way it has?

Ashley Mabbitt:
That’s interesting. It’s similar to the US market where you have some publishers who produce their own audio books and then you have companies who produce audio exclusively. That’s what they do. So publishers or agents, authors, agents will license audio rights to those third parties. So in other markets it’s a similar kind of thing. There are some publishers who do their own audio and then there are some publishers who do not, but there are companies who produce audio in that language and distribute in those markets.

Ashley Mabbitt:
So it’s interesting and there’s some… One of the things about audio is who are the players who distribute exclusively on one platform, if you will, and who are the ones who distribute on Spotify and Apple and all of those kinds of different platforms. So it seems to be changing quite a lot. It’s very dynamic but I think especially once a book… If a book has already been translated and is published in print and ebook, then that says, “Hey, there’s a market in this language for this book. Why shouldn’t there be an audio?” that’s just an easy move, I think.

Mike Onorato:
A question about, we touched on earlier and you mentioned LinkedIn and other platforms, what is a good resource for anyone who wants to know more about foreign rights or wants to see the latest deals or the players, are there resources for those folks?

Ashley Mabbitt:
That’s an interesting question. I would say publishers marketplace, they publish news of deals and even if those deals are with US publishers in English, they always say what rights that publisher is getting, whether it’s world just in English or world rights in all languages, that kind of thing. Where else could you find out about that kind of thing? It’s a really good question. One other source of information possibly, although I’m not sure if this is useful to others, but at least it’s good to be aware of the whole ecosystem.

Ashley Mabbitt:
There are also Scouts in a way that a baseball team would have Scouts. Some overseas publishers have Scouts based in the US who cover what’s happening in the US publishing market and tell the publisher in Spain, “Hey, there’s a hot new title. I’m going to get the proposal for you and I’m going to share it with you.” That kind of thing. They’re usually quite small Scouts and they’re pretty easy to find online.

Mike Onorato:
Interesting. I love publisher’s marketplace because it’s a good repository for so much good information. It’s one of the things that we all in this industry are constantly reading because in fact, for example, today, I was looking through the deals memo and it’s just amazing to see, we hear all the time about how publishing is going away and when you read so many of these deals, especially today’s, you see the volume of books that have been signed and three book deals here and there and it’s just encouraging to see that much activity consistently. So it’s one thing that we all, I know I personally love to see. So in closing here, what are some of the big trends that you’ve noticed or maybe Ashley to turn the question around, what do you see some of the big things coming down the pike might be in this space?

Ashley Mabbitt:
I think that it’s going to be a case of, as you were just saying, there is always this question about is publishing going to go away, is it still relevant? Do people read books and I think what’s been established over the past few years with some of the big publishers in the US doing quite well actually with print book sales is yeah, people still read books. Yes, there’s certainly competition from would people staring at their phones and all of that kind of thing.

Ashley Mabbitt:
That’s still happening but I don’t think that reading books is going away and it’s not going away anywhere else in the world either. There are things that go in and out of fashion certainly, but I think that there are a lot of people around the world who see the value to their inner beings of a good book and even practical books that help them stay in touch with the trends in whatever their given career field is. I don’t think that’s going away.

Ashley Mabbitt:
I think that a book that is very relevant in the US can sometimes be very relevant in Japan. It’s just a matter of connecting the dots and getting that book in front of the right editor whose eyes are going to sparkle and they’re going to say, yeah, I’m going to go to the trouble to pay for these rights, to hire a translator, to hire someone to design a new cover and I’m going to take that risk.

Mike Onorato:
Well said. Excellent. So my final question is a more of a fun one. What is your favorite country that you’ve been to and why?

Ashley Mabbitt:
Let’s see. My favorite I think right now I would have to say Brazil because I haven’t been able to make the trip for a few years now. So I’m feeling nostalgic, especially because I saw some of my wonderful Brazilian friends and contacts last week. There’s such a big difference between being in a Frankfurt meeting with someone for 15 or 20 minutes sometimes or actually going to a market, walking around even a couple of bookstores, visiting a publisher in their office and sitting down and spending some real time.

Ashley Mabbitt:
It is a wonderful thing. Being able be in Rio and to see the contrast between the beautiful beaches and then seeing the shopping malls where you have teenagers running around and bookstores and the whole thing is it just becomes really real. So I think I’m feeling that lack right now of a really deep understanding of the market because sometimes I think people over emphasize the sameness.

Ashley Mabbitt:
Yes, we all have so many similarities and some many similar concerns and goals and suffer a lot of the same issues. But on the other hand, there are things about different markets that are very unique and in a way it’s amazing that we have books that have been translated into 10 or 12 or more languages. So the fact that that book can speak to so many different markets in literally in different languages is remarkable.

Mike Onorato:
Sure is. I love that point about being able to see a publisher in their offices or go to a bookstore and to see it firsthand and just get such a good sense of it. We see that just in the United States when we’re talking to, to folks and you’re not on the ground there, you can’t get as much of a feel for it. Then you can, if you’re there and seeing it and hearing it.

Mike Onorato:
I would also wage the social side of it and chatting with someone at dinner, chatting with someone over a drink about what the challenges they face in their day to day and they’re probably not going to be far off from what you face and what we face and everything else. It’s that bond that you get when you’re there on the ground.

Ashley Mabbitt:
Absolutely. I think sometimes in the US, we’re very focused on work and getting tasks done and things like that. So dinners and things like that can be seen as a nice extra but not essential. But quite frankly, there are a lot of other cultures around the world where if you don’t do that, if you don’t spend that time, you’re not going to be seen as somebody who’s really taking them seriously.

Mike Onorato:
Well that’s a great place to leave it. Ashley, this was wonderful. Thank you so much for your time and for your insight.

Ashley Mabbitt:
Thank you Mike. This has been really fun for me.

Mike Onorato:
Of course, we’d love to have you back. We have a lot of return guests as you would imagine on the pod, at least some that want to come back. But we’re trying to branch out and do some different topics and I was so, so pleased that you’re able to do this for us. I thank you for your time. This has been the all things book marketing podcast. I’m your host Mike Onorato, and thank you for joining us.

Speaker 1:
Thank you for listening to this edition of the Smith Publicity, All Things Book Marketing podcast. To reach us and learn about our many book marketing services, visit www.smithpublicity.com or send us an email to info@smithpublicity.com.