Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. Your Agent Sells Your Book Overseas

I hear over and over and over again how a writer must have an agent to sell books overseas. I even used it as one of the reasons in an earlier post about why a writer might want to have an agent.

But is it your agent, the person you hired in New York, who actually sells your book overseas? Of course not. And that’s where the myth and misinformation really gets out of hand in this area about agents.

I can hear a few of the thoughts out there right now. Writer Boy has lost it. On one hand he says it is a reason to get an agent to sell books outside your own country, then says now that your agent doesn’t sell overseas.

Yup, that’s what I’m saying. The myth is that your agent sells your books overseas. The truth is so far, far different. Which is why over the years I’ve watched my wife get odd looks from other writers when she’s talking about selling this book or that series to another country. Often the question is “How do you do that?” I can’t begin to tell you how many successful novelists in this country have never had one overseas sale.

The reason: Your agent doesn’t sell your books overseas (for the most part).

How important are overseas sales? Huge. Many, many smart authors I know make far more money out in the big world then they do in this one country. And often writers can make their living by selling into a foreign country and not making many sales at all in the States. It’s a huge world, folks. Huge.

So, let me see if I can make some headway into this crazy puzzle, another standard silliness for the writing side of the publishing industry.


Agents you can hire fall generally into three different categories. Stay with me now, this is important.

1…Agent who works for a large agency.

2…Agent who works in a small group of other agents or in a small agency.

3…Agent who works alone or with one other agent.

Now, I will be back to this information in a moment. And note that I’m not even counting the scam agents. I assume by now in these chapters everyone reading this would be beyond scam agents. There are enough troubles with New York based top agents, let alone some scam artist based in the sticks.

Do any of these agents in any of those groups sell your books to overseas publishers? Very, very few.

So how does a book get sold from this country into other country’s publishing programs?

Many ways, actually. And there is the problem.

First Major Way:

You sell World Rights, or English Language Rights, or certain “translation rights” in your contract with your publisher. Then your publisher has an arm of their company overseas, or your publisher has a staff inside their house that works and sells rights overseas. You get your money through your royalty statement put against your advance.

Second Major Way:

If your agent is with a large agency, the agency has a dedicated foreign rights agent. This agent sometimes contacts publishers directly overseas, but often works with an agency based in the foreign country. So if your agent in a big agency wants to try to sell your books overseas, they give it to the dedicated foreign agent (who you likely don’t know) who then either shops it or gives it to yet another agent (who you certainly don’t know and didn’t hire).

Third Major Way.

You contact the publishers yourself overseas and sell it yourself. (My wife sold her last few books overseas on her own completely from start to end. On another she sold it but brought her agent in to help with the deal.) Going to large conventions with international flavor helps in this as well since you have a chance to meet overseas publishers.

Fourth Major Way.

Hit it big with a book, news big, huge advance big. Then the overseas publishers will take note and contact you. Also, this happens when you win some awards. Kris had a Nelscott book announced for the Edgar and sold Japanese rights before she got out of bed the next morning.

So notice I didn’t mention the other two levels of agents? Why?

Because those agents rarely manage to get a book even into the hands of an overseas publisher. It happens, especially for their bestsellers, but rarely because of anything the agent did. Most of the time the writers with these level of agents either sell the books themselves or hit it big and get the sales that way. (However, to be clear, there are a few agents in smaller houses that do have knowledge and can sell overseas, but the fraction of these types of agents is very small.)

Agent Level #2 & #3 aren’t big enough (usually) to have a dedicated in-house foreign agent. So many, many, many of these agencies or agents contract with a dedicated foreign agent who is independent (and you don’t know). That’s right, your book leaves your agents hands and goes to another agent in New York in a different agency.

Actually, that seldom happens either. It is THE NAME OF YOUR BOOK and YOUR NAME that are given to the other agent along with your publisher and publication date and genre.

Then this dedicated foreign agent makes up a big list of hundreds and hundreds of book and sends it to either overseas agents or overseas publishers or both. That’s right, just a list. Some at the top have a blurb about the book, most don’t. Does your book at #114 on the list have a shot of being picked up by a publisher in France? Nope. Sorry.

And, of course, this is done every month. Sometimes every week. Only the bestsellers on the list have a hope or get any extra attention at all.

So, when you got all excited about getting an agent, did you bother to ask who their foreign agent was? Or do they sell overseas themselves? Or how they would get your books to other publishers overseas? Or if they would even try? Many, many agents don’t even try, considering themselves only agents for North American publishers.

(Back to my point about better to sell your own book first, then hire a top agent at a big agency. Then you have a faint shot. Or hire an agent in the other two levels who does it directly herself. Rare.)

The Ugly Numbers:

A Big Agency: Might have upwards of twenty or more agents, often more. But for math sake, let me leave it at 20 Agents. Each agent has 50 clients, some more some less, depending on the number of bestsellers on their list or the number of “project” first authors. That’s around 1,000 authors in a place like Trident or Writer’s House and who knows how many more are in William Morris.

So that’s 1,000 authors for one dedicated foreign agent. And a bunch of them are bestsellers. A bunch. And if you are not, do you get much time with that agent pitching your book? No, but you might get some if you book has enough attention in other areas or is a lead title in a genre.

This dedicated foreign agent has contacts with overseas publishers and also has sub-agents in each country and has the clout of the bestsellers behind her if she likes your book.

So imagine this sub-agency in say Paris, who works with ten agencies out of New York and another dozen from around Europe and another dozen from other parts of the world. That’s the agency your book goes into in Paris from the dedicated foreign agent in your agency, with thousands of other books, all published in one country or another. Yup, those agents are going to give your book special attention without some special reason. Nope, afraid not, unless it is a bestseller or has something special or has a powerful sub-agent pushing it.

By the way, sometimes these overseas agents are called “agent networks” or something similar depending on how your agent wants to sugarcoat it to make it sound better to you.

Dedicated New York Foreign Agency. Now, let’s go back to New York and focus on the #2 or #3 level agency. Say a #2 Agency has 300 clients, a #3 agency might have 50 to 100 clients. (All numbers rounded and that varies from agent to agent.)

Now this dedicated foreign agency contracts with thirty to fifty New York agencies to handle their overseas submissions. This dedicated foreign agency can be dealing with upwards of 5,000 or more writers, all producing published works. See why about all they can do is send lists? And, of course, the bestsellers in those client agencies get all the attention, as they should. Duh.

The key is to ask when you hire an agent. If they send your book to another agency, I would run like the wind from that agent. It’s a deal-breaker for me. The agency either has an in-house foreign agent or the agent has a track record of selling overseas herself.

How to get around the Ugly Numbers?

Same way you do selling a book to New York of course. In this modern world of internet, it is very easy to find and contact an overseas publisher. You might be surprised, if you are businesslike and have a track record and a book that fits their program, how welcoming they will be.

Or you can just jump the New York step and contract agents in each country directly.

As I said a few thousand times this last week in the marketing workshop, what is the worst thing a foreign publisher or agent can say? “Thanks, but no thanks.”

The point of this chapter is simple, so let me lay it all out in a simple fashion.

1) Overseas sales are worth your effort in both money and time.

2) Don’t expect your agent to automatically just do it for you, especially if you have a lower-level agent or agency. Won’t happen.

3) Don’t ever hire an agent in New York just so they can sell your foreign rights. Back to my posts about how agents don’t sell books and how agents don’t care about you, only their contacts with New York publishers and their own business.

4) If you want to be an internationally selling fiction writer, take control of this aspect of your career as well. It will be slow and the learning curve steep and sometimes painful, but worth every penny.

Trust me, it’s wonderful to hold in your hand a beautiful book from a country with a language you can’t read, but yet there is your name on the cover. And the money is really, really nice as well.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
This is part of my inventory in my bakery now. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

Actually, this post was about some of the many slices of the magic pie that can be cut out for each country in the world. It’s a big world and if you sell out into the big world, you can cut many, many pieces of your magic pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, research, rejections, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

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