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Publishers' profits on foreign sales rising

NEW YORK — With publishers in high gear to drive home more profits and thus better please their corporate parents, foreign rights are now becoming a bigger part of the publishing equation.

Selling rights to American books abroad is nothing new, but foreign rights are helping to defray a larger percent of the cost these days than ever before. As several publishing execs put it to Daily Variety, “We’re learning that the foreign rights market is worth more now than ever.”

Honchos at several of the big publishing houses, including Simon & Schuster’s consumer trade prexy Jack Romanos, thought the only reason really worth trekking off to BookExpo in Chicago this year was to chat up the foreign publishers, dis-tributors and booksellers. While few deals are actually inked at the fair, that chance for voluminous face-to-face contact is key.

“Of the total subrights area for books,” estimates S&S veepee and director of subsidiary rights, Marcella Berger, “I’d say foreign rights make up more than half right now — at least 60% to 70% — and that wasn’t the case 10 years ago.”

Berger attributes the growth to both increased pressure to focus on the bottomline and to emerging markets where American books can now be sold, such as Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. All industry insiders point out that the big players are still the United Kingdom and Germany, with Italy quickly becoming more aggressive on the American acquisitions front.

“Germany is very aggressive in buying rights to English-language books. In fact, the lion’s share of books published in Germany originate in the U.K. or the U.S. — certainly a larger percentage of those are American,” said a spokesperson in the Gotham-based Linda Michaels Agency, which deals exclusively in foreign rights.

Some of the most active foreign publishers chasing American books are German publishers Rowohlt, Droemer and Heyne, and Italians Rizzoli, Mondador and Longanesi, insiders say.

“Italy has become more active in the last six to eight months,” says Berger. “Rizzoli came in with a very nice offer for New York Times bestseller ‘In the Meantime,’ by Iyanla Vanzant, ahead of everyone.”

For the most part, foreign publishers still want to see how books fare in the U.S. market before making an offer, but increasingly, these foreign houses are throwing in bids far earlier in the process — in some cases, only on partial manuscripts.

Big publicity here in the U.S. helps the process along, says one scout. “A book like Tom Wolfe’s ‘A Man in Full’ gets foreign rights taken care of long before books hit shelves.”

Movie producers are hot to know where foreign rights have sold, too, says that scout. “Knowing the book has sold helps with foreign film distribution.”

Another twist is that American publishers are sometimes making back their entire author advance in one fell swoop, as in Pocket Books’ selling of “False Accusations” to one foreign publisher for the same mid-six-figures they paid for American rights.

With all the money that can be made on foreign rights these days, the battle is on between agents and publishers, with both eager to hold on and make the money for their own coffers.

“I’ve heard publishers say ‘I won’t buy the book without world rights,’ ” says Berger. “We just really need the guarantee.”

Agents, in turn, try to make the rights deals themselves, by contacting foreign publishers, using foreign scouts, or a network of subagents, overseas.

American publishing drives the world book market today, according to several pub execs.

“Foreign rights are where it’s really exciting at this point,” says Cathy Fox, veepee and director of subsidiary rights at Putnam Berkley.

“We share a love of books and the written word with the world, and there’s room in all our marketplaces for good books,” she says.

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