Andrea Joyce on the Fast-Paced Role of an International Rights Seller

Stirling’s MLitt course was delighted to host visiting speaker Andrea Joyce this month, who took a break from the whirlwind task of preparing for London Book Fair to let us into her world as Rights Director at Canongate.

Canongate Books is one of the biggest publishers in Scotland, currently employing about 40 people in Edinburgh and London. It has been an independent publisher since 1973, and aims to “unearth and amplify the most vital, innovative voices” with a strong international focus encompassing countries from Albania to Vietnam.

Joyce says this quote unpacks the “sometimes fevered” atmosphere of the London Book Fair.

Last year, Canongate made 139 separate rights deals in 35 countries/languages. Events like the upcoming London Book Fair are ideal environments for getting buyers excited about a book. A first sale can start the momentum, generating hype through conversation – like it did for Jo Marchant’s Cure, which found 18 buyers at LBF 2015. In addition to a general catalogue of their frontlist titles, Canongate also publish a rights guide specifically for the Fair, and are particularly busy in the run-up.

Keeping Pace

Canongate’s aim to “publish authors, not books” involves a tailored approach for each project, and has taken the company in new and interesting directions over the years as their authors continue to explore. Matt Haig, for instance, had published two novels before venturing into non-fiction with the wildly successful Reasons to Stay Alive. His latest book, A Boy Called Christmas, has now taken Canongate into new territory of children’s publishing, including their first visit to the Bologna Book Fair. This kind of challenge keeps things interesting for the rights team, who are constantly expanding their range and networks to keep pace with an author‘s needs.

Outside the publishing house, foreign markets are also constantly evolving. What worked five years ago does not work now; for instance serial and book club rights are far less lucrative than they used to be. Joyce says that this time of change and uncertainty can be both exciting and frightening. The rights team must continuously work to develop and maintain contacts and to stay up-to-date with other publishers’ lists. According to Joyce, it is essential to have an idea of who, down to the editor, a book is likely to appeal to before approaching to make a deal.

Backing a Winner

“The common ground is universal themes and great fiction.” -Andrea Joyce

Not every book is suitable for licensing abroad and this costs the publishing house more, so Canongate needs to be selective. It is important to think about a book’s potential international audience from the start, even those which aren’t immediately obvious. For instance, The Radleys is superficially a YA book about vampires, yet can also be read as a story about teenage experience, or the burial of a wild youth in middle age. As a result, this story effectively transcended geographical borders and was ultimately published in over 26 territories, including a 9-way auction for the German rights .

Sometimes rights sales need a bit more persuasion to get off the ground, as was the case for Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. Although it is essentially a story about overcoming addiction, overseas publishers were initially sceptical that their audiences wouldn’t relate to The Outrun‘s remote setting in Orkney. Luckily, when the reviews started coming in, Liptrot’s novel took flight in the charts, garnering extensive rights deals and winning the Wainwright Prize in 2016.

Joyce says it can difficult to boil down what it is about a book that makes for major international success, but that “the common ground is universal themes and great fiction”.

Making Changes

Successfully selling rights to a book is only the first step in a process which involves many changes before a physical copy is produced. In the majority of cases the text needs to be translated, and the cover also redesigned to appeal to its local readers.

A collection of cover designs for Cure‘s international readership.

Flexibility over a book’s contents can be crucial. For The Novel Cure, international publishers wanted permission to customise the concept to suit their regional markets, including adding different “ailments” that needed a literary “prescription”. The outcome of negotiations was that foreign publishers were allowed to change up to 33% of the content. On the other end of the spectrum, no changes were allowed to be made to Letters of Note, a carefully selected collection of 100 unusual and inspiring letters, because of the curatorial aspects at the core of this book.

While cover redesign tends to be standard, Simon’s Cat bucked the trend. It was decided that all covers should look the same or similar, as consistent design allowed publishers to build this character into a recognisable brand. This meant its initial marketing campaigns, involving postcards, bags, and videos, could be more internationally effective.

The author has to approve of any redesigns made to the cover, although they do not typically approve the translation of their text. The rights team maintains a collaborative relationship with any agents involved, updating them constantly on developments and seeking approval.

Working in Rights

Rights selling can fit in at any stage of the publishing process, from acquisition (sometimes “on proposal”), to post-publication. However, it is usually ideal if international editions can be published simultaneously. This allows foreign publishers to anticipate demand in their area and also to harness the hype generated by Canongate’s marketing team. Thus, a rights seller needs to be kept in the loop with other departments, and attuned to the stages of a book’s development.

The role doesn’t require law training, but does involve lots of contracts work. Working in rights also requires an eye for detail, and an aptitude for selling. You don’t need to be bilingual – negotiations and manuscript reading are done in English – but it certainly helps; at Canongate, two out of four members of the team are trilingual, and travel is often involved. Looking at Canongate’s 2016 rights sales by value shows where frequent destinations might be: last year the USA and Canada took 45%, Germany took 16%, and Asia took 8% of the market.

Many thanks to Andrea for an informative talk, for answering our questions, and for getting us even more excited about London Book Fair 2017!

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