Foreign Rights and Foreign Licensing Deals

What is the difference between “foreign rights” and “foreign licensing deals?” 

Sale of foreign rights is a relatively simple way to exploit out of print books, often with little upfront cost, provided the novel had sufficient original sales and broad appeal. Foreign rights are a subset of the “subsidiary rights” comprising an essential element of your copyright ownership.  They are the granting (or “licensing”) of your copyright to a publisher to do either or both of the following: (a) translate your English language book into a foreign language and sell it in a specific country or group of countries (“territory”) and/or (b) publish your English language book in a territory where it is not currently available.

When marketing an out of print book, it is critical to remember there still may be foreign rights “out there.”  This can happen in a two ways.  First, when you granted foreign rights to your original publisher, it had the right to license those rights to foreign publishers.  Those deals still may be in force under the terms of the original license.  (If you review your reversion letter from the publisher, you typically will see language similar to this: “the Publisher is returning these rights to Author subject to any prior grants of rights authorized and the continuing right to retain Publisher’s share of any future proceeds from those grants.”)  Hopefully, you would know about these deals because a portion of the royalty income should have come to you (typically, half).  Second, if you had a literary agent who retained the foreign rights (you did not grant them to the publisher), your agent or a subagent may have licensed foreign rights, which still may be in existence.  (You should know about these because you would have been required to sign the foreign publishing agreement.)

In either case, by licensing foreign rights to your new edition, you could unknowingly be guilty of copyright infringement of your own book!  For example, assume that your former U.S. publisher granted United Kingdom rights to a British publisher, which still holds these rights.  You now are selling a Kindle version on  The British publisher could sue you for infringement if the book is bought by UK residents.

The structure of a foreign licensing deal is similar to other publishing agreements, with all the usual issues.  Although nothing prevents you from negotiating the royalties and the advance with a foreign publisher yourself, it is best to submit directly to a foreign rights agent.  An individual foreign rights agent may represent countries worldwide or only in certain languages – the agent will match your novel with the foreign publishers who have published or are looking to publish novels like yours.

Royalty rates are typically between 5–10%; the term generally is from three to five years. The advance will be paid 60-90 days after signing the agreement, but royalties are paid only annually.  Digital publication gets more complicated and is handled separately from print rights.  Digital books don’t get advances, but royalties are typically about double print royalties, paid annually.  Be aware that, except for Western European countries, your ability to determine the validity of sales and royalty figures is almost wholly a matter of faith.  Not only may you be dealing with a language problem, but the infrastructure and cultural differences of third world and former Soviet satellite countries are not worth confronting unless a great deal of money is at stake.

You also should be aware that under U.S. law, the translation of a book creates a new copyright in that translation, and typically the foreign publisher will seek to own that copyright.  This is negotiable.

Because of the many issues involved, it is recommended you seek advice from an agent or publishing attorney before signing any foreign publishing deals.

 © 2019 Daniel Steven