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Marleen Seegers on Selling the Foreign Rights to Your Book

Jan 06, 2021

Marleen Seegers on Selling the Foreign Rights to Your Book

Marleen Seegers is the co-founder of 2 Seas Agency, which sells the foreign rights of books by authors such as James Altucher. She's also the host of the Make Books Travel podcast. Her team pays regular visits to international book fairs such as those in Beijing, Turin, Guadalajara, Rio de Janeiro, Sharjah, New York, Leipzig and of course Frankfurt and London, combined with trips to major publishing cities including Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Munich and Berlin.

Jealous yet? Well, COVID put a damper in that publishing schedule. Yet Marleen has still managed to thrive—and educate the rest us about how the whole foreign rights think works, which countries like which books and whether or not it really means doing book readings on Greek islands.  Listen to the episode to find out more. 


Anna David:                  00:00                Wow. So, thank you so much for doing this; as I was just telling you, foreign rights just sounds so glamorous. It conjures up these images of like a Greek Island and doing a book reading on a beach and it's nothing like that. Is it?

Marleen:                      00:15                Well, especially not now when people are just not traveling anywhere. So, I've just been working from my home office since the beginning of the pandemic, but and so are most international publishers, but yeah, I mean, sometimes authors get invited for a reading in a very exotic setting, but most of the time it's us going to international book fairs, and just sitting in these big trade shows, just pitching and in a very busy room and running around and yeah, just, you know, hard business.

Anna David:                  00:51                So, but let us live in our fantasy. How can you tell which books are best for foreign markets? Is it just the quality? Is at the advance the writer was paid? How do you decide?

Marleen:                      01:03                I think it's, you can never really tell for sure whether a book is going to sell internationally or not. And that I think is the most interesting part of my job is that you just never know there's really good surprises. Sometimes there's also bad surprises, when I was really rooting for a book that I personally loved and I didn't manage to sell the rights. But there are a few elements that can help us evaluate an advance, whether a book is going to sell or not. And first of all, as you mentioned, it's the quality is very important. A book just has to be well-written. If I send a manuscript to a foreign publisher and it's not well written, then they will realize after a few pages and they stopped reading and move on to the next manuscript. So, cause what you have to know is that so many books get published around the world in so many languages, not just English.

                                    01:56                So acquiring international publishers get so many books on submission every day. So, it is our job as a foreign right seller to tell them, Hey, drop everything else. Look at this book right here, right now. And being able to tell them, you need to look at this book right here, right now, because it's the number one best seller in the Wall Street Journal. It has sold X number of copies. So, 50,000 copies in the first month of publication, it's been endorsed by X, Y, Z, very, you know, famous authors or other industry figures that are well-respected and well-known. So those elements, you know, are all sales arguments, if there's great reviews in the New York Times or in the Atlantic or whichever traditional publishing, how should I put it traditional newspapers or, you know, blogs, and reviews left on websites can also help, but it's very much still the traditional newspapers that really have a big impact for international publishers.

Anna David:                  03:12                That's super interesting. I wouldn't know that because you think of newspapers as having no pull anymore. Oh, you can get reviewed in New York Times and you can still just sell a hundred copies. You hear things like that. But it makes a difference.

Marleen:                      03:24                Yeah, of course it does. But it does make a difference, being able to mention a quote from the New York Times or Publishers Weekly or Kurkers the reviews. It helps pull them into the manuscripts rather than an Amazon reviewer that nobody has heard of. And, you know, which can be very nice for authors and very important too for sales on Amazon, but for international publishers, they like receiving, or they like connecting with media that they're more familiar with and names that they're more familiar with too.

Anna David:                  03:59                And so are there specific markets that you can say, Oh, you know, in Japan they love thrillers, in Italy they love romance. Are there rules like that?

Marleen:                      04:09                Yeah. I mean, there's trends that come and go, at the moment, anything like nature writing works really well internationally. I think it's what we're living through at the moment. It's kind of a back to nature, back to the basics. Let's just enjoy and go outside on a hike, and read about what birds we can come across and what they can teach us in our lives. And but there are also some country-specific interests. I would say for Japan, as you mentioned that, and in general, all of Southeast Asia, China, and South Korea, and Thailand, Vietnam, any business and marketing title, anything that comes from like the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, that is very much a genre that is much requested by publishers from those territories and that we tend to sell well into those territories.

                                    05:09                And then there's, I can also tell you like specific genres that don't work in specific markets. So, I'm from the Netherlands originally, and I know the Dutch are very down to earth, both feet on the ground, kind of people and any novel that I've tried to sell that had any kind of like magic realism or any kind of fantasies, it's a whole genre on its own, but yeah. Anything magical or just things that don't add up that are very farfetched that just doesn't work in the Netherlands. It just, yeah. It just, it just doesn't work.

Anna David:                  05:49                They're realists.

Marleen:                      05:49                Very, very much so. Yeah. And I'm giving these a very broad stroke. Of course, if there's a bestselling author that has a, a book that has a magic realism in it, which actually, I, I just sold a title from Italy into the Netherlands, which has magic realist, realism elements in it, but it's sold into 10 other countries and it was for six weeks on the Italian bestseller list. So, I had all these other arguments that they will also then have to help them sell the book into, you know, into the Netherlands, to their booksellers. So, any of those rules there's exceptions of course, but yeah, we can kind of know in advance sometimes like also Scandinavian countries. They're very good at writing more, writing thrillers, you know, Scandinavian suspense, like Jonas Beau and Steve Larson, I think who started it all. So those, any novels, any thrillers or suspense from, from Norway or from Sweden, they tend to travel better than a suspense or thriller from the Netherlands, for instance. So, but as a result, also the Scandinavians, they are, it's harder to sell suspense or thrillers from other countries into Scandinavia because they are so good at it themselves. So, it makes it easier just to publish domestic authors rather than invest in a translation, and publish a book by author. Who's not from their territory. So, you see what I mean?

Anna David:                  07:27                Now you were talking about how you can say to a publisher, a foreign publisher, Oh, this was [inaudible] in the New York Times, Jon Branson loved it, whatever it is. Do you ever just go, I love this book. Can you bring it without that credibility or, you know, or does it always have to have something that's set that pre-sells it?

Marleen:                      07:48                Ideally it has both, but I, yes, it has happened that I just absolutely fell in love with a book and I managed to sell just on that premise, but it's very rare and it's getting harder and harder. We'll probably talk about that a little bit later on, but with COVID and publishers have become a lot less open or a lot stricter I'd have to say when it comes to selecting titles that they publish. So, the more sales elements that you can give, like hard sales elements on top of, I am personally in love with this novel that yeah, the better it is.

Anna David:                  08:32                Now is there a typical number of, you know, by first book we sold foreign rights and it sold into just two, Italy and Russia. And I didn't know if selling two countries was a lot, a little, like, is there a typical number that one book will sell in?

Marleen:                      08:54                Yeah, that's hard to, I would say Italy is a nice market. It's a big market. So, congratulations on that. And Russia is also not easy to sell into. I have to admit, so yeah, those are, that's a very nice combination. But it really depends. Sometimes, as I said, I love a book and I just don't manage to sell the rights into any territories. And sometimes, I mean, ideally because we spend time pitching a book and submitting and keeping publishers informed whether a book sells into foreign territories or not. So, we already spend our time whether there's results or not. So ideally of course, yeah. It's like five, six, seven territories or more to give you an example, the bestselling title that we have in our catalog in terms of foreign rights, it's sold into 37 territories. So, but that's really an exception, like the second best, I'd say it's like 22, 23 territories. And then there's a whole bunch at like 15, 16, and then, yeah, there's a whole lot of titles that only sell into one or two territories, and then there's even more that don't sell at all. It's just, that's part of the business. As I said, you can never really anticipate any foreign sales for sure or not.

Anna David:                  10:19                It's interesting. Cause I bet it's much easier to predict initial sales because initial sales, I can sort of talk to somebody and know if their book is going to sell sadly, because it's based so much on their platform today. And if they've got to build in audience in that, I bet it's. So, it's easier. I think to tell which books are going to sell here traditionally first, it's sounding like that. What percentage of the books that you sell are traditionally published and what independently published? I'm imagining mostly traditional.

Marleen:                      10:52                Yeah. So, from independently, you mean working with like platforms like Amazon and uploading them. Yeah. So actually, that doesn't happen at all for us at least. And I think that's what most of the industry looks like in terms of foreign rights sales. We really publish, or we work with traditional publishing houses, but they're both independent. What I call independent publishing houses, meaning they don't belong to like a big corporation, like a Random House or Harper Collins. But they're independent, but they still are. They still function in a traditional way.

Anna David:                  11:27                Well, because I first heard about you through, because you're James Altars foreign rights agent and he published independently. Yes. But his book was massively successful. Yeah.

Marleen:                      11:39                As you say, he already had a huge platform. I mean, his blog was, I don't know how many followers he had back then. I think we started to work on his book, Choose Yourself in 2013, but was already an impressive number of followers. And then, when we took, yeah, when we started pitching his title, we could already mention it's a wall street journal bestseller. It has, I don't know how many, I'm just making up number. I think it was like 50,000 copies sold even before we started pitching it. So that is yeah, that's definitely very helpful. And the publishers who ended up publishing him internationally, they're all traditional publishers.

Anna David:                  12:24                Interesting. And you know, I've never heard this before, but, and you may not be able to speak to this, but, but, you know, I've heard about people who do publish directly to Amazon, getting their books translated into Spanish, and then just publishing them to Spanish markets themselves. Is that something you know, anything about?

Marleen:                      12:47                I don't know much about it. I would say it's complicated. First of all, you need to make sure that the quality of the translation is good. I mean, that's, I would say the first point, the first sticking point, and then working on the editorial side, in the foreign language, you need to hire people who are native speakers, editors, and then, but even if all that is good, once you've uploaded it onto Amazon, in Spain or Mexico, like what's going to happen then, right? Yeah. You need somebody to push it. You need to, you need to press, you need publicity. You need marketing. Of course. I don't know if there's like firms’ international firms that you could hire that you could work with as an independently published author. That's actually a good thing. I I've never really looked into that, but as I said, it just brings about a lot of extra work and a lot of extra I'd say costs as well, because you, you, you want to make sure that the book of the quality of the translation and the editing and the layout and the design is good.

Anna David:                  13:55                Right. Right. And so how do you, on that note, how do you launch a book over? So, when my Italy and Russian rights sold, like nothing happened, you know what I mean? Like, is there something I could have done aside from going there? You know, what can the author do to help their book launch in a foreign country?

Marleen:                      14:19                Yeah. That's, I mean, if the author already has a platform there or has already been published previously and has like a fan base or readership that knows him, then usually authors do get invited by the international publisher or there's like literary festivals or who invite authors. And but for first time authors, it's true that publishers tend to want to weight how the book is received and whether the books are selling well before to decide on investing in an invitation. And yeah, I don't really have an answer to that because it's not really that the foreign publisher has their own team of marketing and publicity and who often also don't necessarily speak the language. A lot of people speak English, but I'm thinking, for instance, if a Spanish author is translated into Russian, the Russian sales team does not necessarily speak Spanish and the author doesn't necessarily speak English nor does the press team.

                                    15:26                So it's just, there's a lot of there's a lot of hurdles to overcome there, but yeah, I really can't give you a straight answer to that. It's just a matter of trusting that the foreign publisher knows what they're doing. You know, it's a lot of this as is with publishing in domestically. It's a lot of lot depends on good timing and a lot of luck as well. So that also happens with international publishers when they launch a book, even some books that are, that sell really well. Like for instance, I was speaking with an Italian editor the other day and they published this German book. Speaking of nature, writing it's called the Secret Language of Trees. I don't know if you've heard of it. It was it's so pretty well in the US too. It was originally from Germany and it sold in a lot of countries. It sold really well. And he told me in Italy because I was pitching a nature writing book to him and he's like, hmm. You know, comparing it to that book, doesn't really help here because it just, we did everything we could, we even, we invited the author because it was like an international sensation and it just didn't, it didn't sell.

                                    16:42                So there's yeah, there's, I'm afraid that I don't think there's much the author can do, unless the author already, like, has a specific connection with that language, can speak it, can actually, you know, record a video sometimes that's what happens, especially now when authors can not travel to the countries to help launch the book. The foreign publishers Aussie authors to record a video, if they can do it in the local language, that would be very helpful and reach out on social media. But other than that, there's not much an author could do. I'm afraid other than just hope for the best.

Anna David:                  17:24                So you mentioned, you know, that things have changed a lot, so would you say it's getting much harder? I mean, you sort of did say that, it's getting harder and harder to sell foreign rights. Fewer foreign rights are selling now?

Marleen:                      17:37                Yeas, I'd say it's more concentrated. So foreign rights to sell, but it's like the best-selling authors and the best-selling titles that are getting sold for more money and then kind of the mid list authors that sell okay. Domestically, but there's not much else to going on around it. They tend to be overlooked just because, you know, with COVID, a lot of countries had bookstores that were closed for months. I spoke with a UK editor this morning and they in the spring their bookstores were closed for 12 weeks. And they're actually getting into a lockdown new lockdown tomorrow. And everybody is a little bit better prepared it seems to handle online sales, but still a lot of publications that were initially scheduled in the spring had to be postponed, which pushed forward to titles that was supposed to be published in the Fall to next spring.

                                    18:36                So everything has been kind of shuffled around, which leaves a lot less space for new acquisitions, because of course, publishers also continue with authors that they they've already acquired titles from before. And they come out with new titles. So, this leaves a lot less room for new acquisitions. This is, let's hope this is a temporary situation, but that's what I felt in this last, these last two, three months. And also, well people, we just don't know what's, what's going to happen. And a lot of foreign rights sales depend also, I have to mention this because it's, it's part of the, as you say a little bit, maybe the glamorous side of it, it's we travel a lot to international book fairs, there are two really important trade shows that take place in London in the spring and in Frankfurt, Germany in the fall. And obviously London was canceled very last minute.

                                    19:30                So nothing happened. It was like a big void. Everybody was grappling with just surviving and the situation in March. And the Frankfurt book fair went fully virtual. So, we just had zoom meetings for two weeks, three weeks nonstop. I actually went, I worked on night shifts because I'm in California. So, and I wanted to make the most of it. So, I started at 1:00 AM until nine or 10:00 AM. But I've noticed that because nobody's meeting in person, you know, a lot depends on relationships. If you know, specific editors really well, they trust you and trust your opinion. So, and then that case, if you say, I love this book, they're much more likely to say, okay, I need to read it now because Marleen loves it. And all that just happens so much better when you're there in person, even on a screen, it's just not the same. So, for us right sellers, the job has become more challenging because everything is digital.

                                    20:33                We're not seeing anybody in person and all we can do now is submit titles and send out reminders and send out newsletters about bestseller rankings. But all of the right sellers are doing that. Now editors are telling me we're getting so much more in our inbox, just, so we need to find creative ways to pitch our titles and the Frankfurt book fair. As I said, it went fully digital. It offered possibilities to record webinars, but I decided not to attend because it's also, I was going to sit in for half an hour when there's not, it's not a personal thing. It really is about the personal connection. So, I know a few agencies did record webinars. Yeah. I have no idea. It's still too soon to say whether they were successful or not, or whether it was useful or not. So, it's just, that's changed a lot in our dealings, in our daily lives.

                                    21:33                So it's yeah, as I said, it's, it's, it's a bit more challenging. Publishers are, they are buying less, but they continue to buy. And in the end, everybody that the general spirit was pretty much uplifting. A lot of sales were made over the summer and in the Fall, whereas obviously the spring wasn't so glorious, so to speak. But so, yeah, I think that the international publishing market is resilient, but it is, it's gotten a lot tighter,

Anna David:                  22:06                But at the same time you know, all studies show reading is up. People are reading more. There's possibly, you know, and possibly that will last after we're out of this crazy period. So, who knows it could, you know, there could be a resurgence?

Marleen:                      22:23                For sure. A lot of editors told me also that they like people who tend to spend money on cultural activities, like going to museums or to the theater or to the movie theater, which in many countries have been closed since March. So, they now spend their money more on books. So, it's definitely, yeah, but books, as I said, a lot of publishers had a really good summer and good Fall now, of course the Christmas period is always very important. And now with, the threat of, you know, many more countries going down in lockdown and the bookstores, not being able to count on these walk-ins like shopping experiences. That's what I meant with the uncertainty. We don't really know what's going to happen like in the next couple of months, but I mean, I'm with you, let's hope that that just people are rediscovering reading and that it will be, yeah, it will outlast this horrible pandemic that we're living through.

Anna David:                  23:24                And so, as we wrap up, tell me about your podcast, why you decided to start it and how it's going?

Marleen:                      23:32                So I've been wanting to start a podcast for a while. Actually, it's my husband who was co-founder of the agency. I always say he's the entrepreneurial of our couple, he actually started a podcast for one of his companies and then he was like, Oh, why don't you start one? I'm sure nobody's doing it in the international publishing world. And as like, yeah, I'll look into it. And there's always so much else to do so, but then obviously, as I said, the London book fair didn't happen. I was in Amsterdam for one week and then I flew back right before the borders shut. And then yeah, people were just stressed out and were very much in need to reconnect. And so was I, so normally we just have this world line of meetings for four days in a row of meetings and then drinks and dinners. And you just catch up with so many people in that one week of the London book fair, that just didn't happen.

                                    24:33                And people were eager to reconnect. And I was really eager to reconnect, connect with people in another way. So, I decided to then, yeah, start the podcast. And initially it was about, the very first episode was, it focused on how the agency has been working with a remote office since the beginning. Which a lot of publishers were having to deal with because, yeah, everybody was working from home at the time and definitely did not know how to do it. It was really interesting to see. So that was like the initial, like how do we do it? Which programs did we use? Just very like nitty-gritty stuff. And then I got a lot of positive feedback and then people started reaching out, Oh, I'd love to talk to you. And also, because so many countries were going through a similar experience, but in a different rhythm, obviously China and Korea had the shutdowns already sooner and then Europe arrived.

                                    25:34                And then the US, so I thought it was also really interesting to reach out to publishers from specific territories and just ask them about what's going on in your country. How are you dealing with pandemic and how is your publishing company or your agency dealing with the pandemic? What do you think are people reading are audio books on the rise? Obviously, that was an important topic then because so many people couldn't buy print books because Amazon was also not prioritizing books. So that was the onset. And I yeah, I'm actually starting season two tomorrow recording the first episode, I took a little break with the Frankfurt book fair season. And, but it's been great and I absolutely love it. It's just, it's another way to connect with people because we're just, we're not seeing each other now. And everybody is very, very sad about not being able to see each other. It's a really magical experience those two book fairs, Frankfurt and London, there's plenty of others that I also go to. But those are the two where everybody just shows up and yeah, it's like a reunion.

Anna David:                  26:49                So, in terms of audio, do you sell foreign rights of audio books too, and hire actors in English?

Marleen:                      27:01                So the, the foreign publishers, usually nowadays, when they buy the publishing rights to a book and the translation rights, to a book, they acquire print, eBook, and audio book rights. So that all is in one contract. And then the foreign publisher either they sub-license it to a specific audio book publisher who then takes care of the production or what is happening more and more, they have it recorded in-house because then they own the master files obviously, and they can do a lot of things with it. So yeah, definitely audio is on the rise. I would say it's nowhere near the levels in terms of sales and income. It's nowhere near the levels it has in the US and the UK and other English language markets. Germany has been strong in the audio book market for a couple of years now where it actually is. It's like a competitor to the mass market paperback edition.

                                    27:56                Even in other countries, it's still very much at the very beginning, but there is interest and people are interested in having the audio book rise and more and more are telling us if we can't have the audio rights, then we're not making an offer altogether. And that's also because I don't know if you've heard of there's a Swedish company called Storytell it's a little bit like, yeah, they've been aggressively expanding internationally. They originally started out in the Scandinavian countries, but now they're also operating in the Netherlands and Spain and Bulgaria all around, also in Asia. So that is, they have really accelerated the developments. And especially in terms of streaming, it's mainly a streaming platform.

Anna David:                  28:51                Hmm. Well, this has been delightful. Thank you so much. If people want to find you and listen to your podcast, how can they do that?

Marleen:                      29:01                So, I would say they go to the website, which is a two, the number two. And there is a link to the podcast on the website, but otherwise, it's called the Make Books Travel podcasts because we make books travel and it's available on Spotify, Google podcasts, iTunes, wherever you listen to some of your regular podcasts.

Anna David:                  29:26                Well, wonderful. Thanks so much. And thank you guys for listening and I will see you next week. Not you, them. I'm not going to see anybody. I'm going to talk to you.


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