This morning, I found out through the magic of Facebook that four of my sf novellas, translated into Italian, are four of the five bestselling titles in my Italian publisher’s bookstore. As I mentioned in my blog on translation a few weeks ago, that’s not due to me. That’s because I have an excellent translator. It’s a good marriage of translator and story, because books in translation don’t receive acclaim (and sales!) if the translator is poor, no matter how well the book did in its original language.
The Italian books came about because I don’t have an agent. I know that’s counterintuitive for those of you still wedded to traditional publishing myths, but things have changed dramatically in the past twenty years. Or rather, my eyes have been opened and things have changed.
For many years, I had sold many titles for translation in other countries. Then I switched agents, went to a much larger agency, one with a dedicated foreign rights department, and the sales of my books to foreign publishers for translations decreased. I switched agents again, to an even larger and more prestigious (and older) agency, and my foreign rights sales stopped completely.
What happened? It’s very clear in hindsight.
Agent #1 embezzled from me. His preferred area of embezzlement? Foreign rights royalties. He paid the advances, although I never saw the contracts (a problem right there, because who signed them? I never gave him power of attorney). I have no idea if he skimmed off the top of those advances. I suspect he did, but I didn’t audit him.
When I realized just how shady this guy was, and believe me, it took years because he (still) has a sterling reputation in the industry, I fired him and moved to the much more prestigious and much larger boutique agency with the dedicated foreign rights agent with an office in the basement.
My sales started drying up then, because she would turn down deals if they were too small. Embezzler Boy would take those sales, because he knew he would get more in royalties, but she was (in theory) above board, and thought the deals too small.
Since Boutique Agency handled (and handles) some big New York Times bestsellers, my deals were small in comparison to those offered to the big names. And apparently, not worth the agent’s time. She turned down the offers without consulting me. Yep, she and the agent I had for my U.S. rights often turned down “too-small” offers on my behalf without consulting me.
How did I find this out? Only when I went overseas as the guest of honor at an international science fiction convention and publisher after publisher who had published my work in the past pulled me aside to ask why I had gotten so focused on money. I mentioned changing agents, thinking these publishers had simply contacted the wrong person, and the publishers told me they knew I had changed agents and as politely as possible, told me that the change prevented my books from seeing print.
. . . .
I’ve been making steady royalties off the foreign deals I’ve negotiated, without any embezzling that I’ve caught. (Another foreign agent, a partner agent to Boutique Agency’s agent, embezzled as well. It’s so easy for “trusted advisors” to put their sticky fingers into a writer’s finances, so easy it’s scary.)
The Italian deal, above, with the novellas, is one I negotiated. I’ve done plenty of others, and I know I could have even more if I simply queried the older publishers. I’m sure I will…eventually.
. . . .
One of the biggest overseas markets for my work twenty-five years ago was Great Britain. Back then, getting British books here in America or getting American books in Great Britain was a real chore. There were some booksellers, including friends of mine, who specialized in getting first edition British books into the States. That involved tariffs and taxes and expensive shipping or traveling with the books themselves. And then there was no guarantee of instant sales.
The best way for book dealers to handle British books was to deal with British writers who had become popular here. British writers like P.D. James would first publish their books in Great Britain, so the first editions in English were always British. Plus, they were released six months to a year in advance of the American edition. If you couldn’t wait for your next P.D. James fix, you either had to travel to England yourself, cultivate a British bookseller, or buy books from one of these American bookseller/brokers.
No matter what your preferred method was, you would always pay a premium for that first edition and the chance to read that book before everyone else.
Amazon started to change that when it opened its Amazon U.K. store years ago. Other online businesses sprang up that had partners in various countries, which somehow reduced the tariffs and duties. (I don’t even pretend to know all the legalities.)
But the real groundbreaker, as you all know, was Amazon’s Kindle, which led to the rapid rise of electronic books.
. . . .
My books have been in the Amazon U.K. store since Amazon made it possible to sell English-language books in the U.K., and the one thing I always noticed was that the British market lagged a few years behind the American market. (I like to say five years behind, but it’s probably closer to three.)
The arguments against e-books were the same in Great Britain as the ones against ebooks in the U.S., but Great Britain was having the arguments years after the U.S. had already settled them.
The British market remains years behind the U.S. market, and the British market added some twists to protect paper books. For example, the U.K. market charges a Value-Added Tax (VAT) on all ebooks, which it does not charge on paper books. I’m sure there are other things that I’m not aware of that are currently hindering some of the growth in the U.K. ebook market.
But the market is a viable one. For years, for my work, Amazon’s U.K. ebook sales were always second to Amazon U.S. ebook sales. That’s no longer true. A number of other retailers both here and in other countries now scoop Amazon U.K. in terms of sales for my stuff. But we all know—or should know—that anecdotal evidence isn’t really evidence at all. It’s just proof that one writer’s career works one way.
. . . .
Myth 3: The Big Five Publishers here in the U.S. can get better overseas sales for their writers.
Simply not true at all. The entire [Author Earnings UK] study that Hugh and Data Guy did points to this conclusion—and frankly it surprised them. It didn’t surprise me, because my own personal experience has been that the ebook revolution has made my own English-language sales grow exponentially.
I’ve had some other experiences though that help this detail be unsurprising for me. I’ve traveled overseas as an author a number of times, and I was the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction before this ebook revolution hit.
I constantly got questions back in those days about making F&SF available for an international audience. After all, the major SF awards are mostly focused on short fiction and until the last six years or so, getting the issues of the various short fiction magazines into the hands of readers outside the U.S. has been difficult at best. Those readers had heard of all of these stories and authors, but weren’t able to sample them.
Now readers can, and can easily.
The same happened with novels. I can’t tell you how many people I met overseas who had heard of my work but had never read it. They wanted copies of the work, but couldn’t get their hands on it.
Then the ebook revolution happened, and I got email after email from some of these same readers, ecstatic that they can now get books they had only heard about before.
Some of my books that are unavailable overseas are traditionally published. In some cases, I got English-language rights reverted to me, so there are different editions for the overseas work and the U.S. work. But in others, I signed some bad contracts that took translation rights as well as World English. Those publishers have not exercised any of the overseas rights. Not a one, but they would come after me if I did so.