Foreign language publishing: the ‘last bastion’ of rights

Diane Spivey, Rights and Contracts Director at Little, Brown Book Group, delivered the latest Kingston Publishing Masterclass, sharing fascinating insights into the mechanics and motions behind the scenes of rights sales and management. 

Many people assume that rights primarily involves copyright and legal matters. In fact, Diane points out, it is essentially a sales activity. Publishers’ income comes from either selling books or licensing the rights to use intellectual property (IP). The latter has the ability to turn a loss-making book into a profit-making product, and functions through a chain of rights’ deals allowing exploitation for limited periods of time.

Rights is constantly evolving, and as per Judith Watts’ post when Diane visited Kingston last year, it is a fast-moving and unpredictable field. However, Diane talked extensively about what she sees as one of its most consistent areas – foreign language rights. At their most basic level publishers are an intermediary who can provide effective and reliable translations of content between markets. Yet foreign language rights goes beyond this – at the centre of foreign language rights is the issue of cultural difference. By licensing to, and from, organisations outside of the UK, UK publishers have the ability to adapt to different marketplaces.

Sarah Waters Affinity international cover comparison

The international covers for Sarah Waters' 'Affinity', published by the Little, Brown imprint Virago. From left to right: UK, Spain, France, Japan

Publishing markets differ between countries in a number of ways:

  • Price of books
  • Look of books (e.g. book jackets)
  • Cultural tastes
  • Editorial tastes
  • Context i.e. differing economic and political conditions

So, locally relevant and locally appealing content, packaging and marketing are needed. For instance, Little, Brown UK and Little, Brown US share very few books because of the culturally-specific tastes of both the editorial teams and wider readerships on each side of the Atlantic. Likewise, American and British jackets for the same book tend to be significantly different, as the examples shared in this article by Carol Pinchefsky demonstrate.

While in the 1970s publishing went ‘vertical’, in that paperback publishers and hardback publishers merged to cover both markets, a more horizontal attitude is needed to foreign language rights. Transnational houses such as Little, Brown UK and US are the exception – most UK publishers license material to unconnected foreign publishers (and vice versa, though the UK have a poor track record for publishing foreign books), because the UK publisher cannot effectively cater to those foreign markets themselves. Diane notes that the ‘locally published edition’ is nearly always better. And where publishers are developing foreign language versions of existing publishing products, there will always be a need for rights sales and rights management.


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