I’d never sold ‘rights’ to books before. Selling rights is when a publisher grants a license to another publisher to publish his books in another territory, or country, often in another language.
It’s always a feather in the publisher’s cap to have sold rights and this extra income is always welcome. It’s like free money because there are next to no costs involved. For instance, the product has already been created so there are no more creation costs. It’s like selling the same car twice.
So, when I published my first ever series of books, I asked a pal in my industry if I should think about selling rights, which I’d never done. Nor had I any clue as to how to do it. My pal, Ally, suggested that it might be too ambitious to think that anyone’s first series might sell to other countries. Besides, I was a small publisher and the rights sales business is dominated by the big publishers. Oh well, I thought, that’s that.
Nevertheless, I printed up an information sheet on the books, which was a series of 12 ghost stories for children. My colleague, Scott, and I went to our first ever Frankfurt Book Fair with nothing more than faint hope at best. In fact, Scott, remembering Ally’s advice, counselled against going to Frankfurt at all. However, the old door-to-door sales training was deeply rooted in me. So what if we didn’t sell any rights at this fair? Nothing would stop us trying. We arrived with our printed sheets and, having identified prospects from the fair catalogue, simply visited their stands just to drop off our information leaflet with a view to going back the following day to discuss. Prospecting. Ally had tried to dissuade us from this approach because “hard selling” was not welcome at such book fairs, filled, apparently, with genteel publishing editors (who were effectively the buyers). And we did get some unwelcoming looks as we dropped off our leaflets.
However, after dropping off just 10 leaflets Scott got a call on his mobile phone from someone at the first exhibitor’s stand he’d visited literally five minutes after we’d started. This publisher was from Italy and was in fact the biggest there. The caller asked us to return to her stand immediately. More than intrigued we went back.
“Sit down, please,” the lady, Carla, said. We expected perhaps she’d ask a bit more about the books. But our wildest expectations were exceeded within seconds.
“This is exactly what I need. Please tell me the Italian rights are still available?” We nodded, dumbstruck. She continued, “How about my company publishes six of your titles early next year, with an option on the other six? We’d pay you 6% of RRP as a royalty. The RRP will be €8.”
We paused, not as a negotiating ploy, but because we genuinely hadn’t the faintest idea how to proceed. We’d never even done a rights presentation, far less closed a rights deal. Carla was waiting for us to speak though. “Of course, I wouldn’t expect you gentlemen to proceed without an advance being agreed.
Therefore, I propose an advance of €8,000.” We were still silent. “With another €8,000 guaranteed within six months. I can get the contract faxed through right now if you agree.”
I hadn’t a clue if this was a good deal or not. Logically thinking, the chances were it was a great deal. Still, I wanted to check with Ally, who’d much more experience in rights than most.
I asked Carla to excuse me for a minute. I nipped off her stand and called him, imparting the improbable news that the biggest publisher in Italy was anxious to fax through a contract on the first day of the fair, within the first hour, actually. Now it was Ally’s turn to be silent.
“Ally, is it a good deal or not?”
After more shocked silence he eventually muttered, “Yes.”
I went back to Carla and we shook hands. Scott asked her why she had done such a big deal without even reading the books.
“Because our contract insists we can change any text we feel we need to. Any problem with that?” We shook our heads, trying hard not to break the spell, this magical spell.
We never got as good a deal with anyone after that although we did sell the rights to the series in other languages. We found out years later that Carla had agreed in principle to do a deal with a massive US publisher on a highly successful similar ghost story series but they’d switched to a higher bidder within her territory, leaving her with a massive gap in her publishing list.
When she’d seen our leaflet with our series of books in the same genre as the books that had been pulled from under her nose she must have thought it was Christmas. Not only did she replace the series, which ended up running for over 12 years in Italian, but she’d gotten revenge on the US publisher and strengthened her negotiating position in any further dealings with them.
Of course, we’d known nothing of this backstory to her very strong interest in our product. All we’d known was that we hand to start from scratch, using the disciplined methods of good oldfashioned sales prospecting, regardless of the environment
By Bob Smith has worked in sales for more than 30 years, works as an experienced recruiter, trainer and motivator and is also a published author of both children’s and adult titles.