Foreword Reviews

Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover (and other tips for selling foreign rights)


I recently returned from my tenth annual trip to Beijing for the international book fair held there at the end of every summer. Leaving Traverse City, Michigan, at its seasonal peak for a chaotic, smog-filled, hot and humid visit to Asia is not easy, but the business being transacted in the Chinese market keeps me coming back with gusto. For the past couple years, I’ve also been equally enthusiastic about a November trip to the China Children’s Book Fair in Shanghai.

What keeps me excited about exhibiting at the China fairs is the incredible opportunity for US indie presses to sell rights in that explosive publishing scene as well as increasing demand for English books distributed into China for ESL students.

The hard part? Predicting which books are going to attract the most attention. Often, I’m shocked to see books that would turn off the average American reader see traction and eventual deals. You just never know what somebody is going to fall in love with.

For independent presses and authors who may just be entering this space, here are a few tips to consider before committing yourself to selling foreign rights.

  • Know what foreign rights include: translations, reprints, distribution, co-publishing.

  • Determine if you should manage foreign rights sales yourself. You can also work with an agent/subagent/agency, a publisher, distributor, lawyer, rights marketing company, or a combination of them all.

  • Clearly define your goals: Is it for extra money? For international exposure of your work? To increase your brand awareness? To help market an author or book?

  • Figure out which show to start with: Frankfurt Book Fair (October, in Germany); Bologna Children’s Book Fair (April, in Italy); London Book Fair (April, in the UK); Beijing International Book Fair (August, in China); China Children’s Book Fair (November in Shanghai).

  • Identify your options for attending: you can rent your own stand, present with a group, or walk the show to develop relationships on your own.

  • Be advised of the books that “traditionally” do well: Children’s Picture Books, Middle Grade and Young Adult, best-selling fiction from well-known authors, business books, self-help and spirituality; award winners; books in a series; topics with international appeal; authors who can speak at events and have a good social media following.

  • Foreign publishers want a story line with a lesson or universal values. They also love a good book series.

  • Also be advised that “untraditional” books only need one interested agent to make a deal and it often happens!

  • Prepare for pre- and postshow with collateral materials like a tip sheet, watermarked PDF, and patience.

  • Understand the follow-up process and accept that it may, but probably won’t, happen as quickly as you would like (read: don’t count on the revenues immediately after the fair!).

Developing your rights program can be some of the most rewarding work you’ll ever do in publishing. Global business partners, some who become lifelong friends, are the minimal benefits of sharing your content in an international marketplace.

Victoria Sutherland
Victoria Sutherland is the publisher of Foreword Reviews. You can e-mail her at

Victoria Sutherland

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