Depending on whom you talk to, the foreign rights markets are rebounding, or are still in decline. With the Frankfurt Book Fair underway this week, the industry will be closely watching what happens at the German powwow—and not just for the big book deals, but also for signs about how European publishing is faring. Are those economies rebounding, and with them, the buying habits of editors at major international houses? Or are the global financial doldrums still affecting the fair, and cutting into the dollars that foreign publishers are willing to spend on American books?
One agent, who handles foreign rights for a U.S. agency (and who asked not to be named), said she thinks the European markets have been “tightening up” since 2009. She believes the slowdown is due to multiple factors. “It’s a combination of the economic crisis, having so much supply from the U.S., and the fact that overseas publishers are looking more and more to their own authors.” She added that what’s happening abroad seems in line with what’s happening in the States: the competition to place projects is more intense than ever before.
“There are certain markets that are really tough right now,” explained Heather Baror-Shapiro, an agent at Baror International. She feels the recession-plagued Spain has been one of the countries hardest hit, along with Italy to a lesser extent. Of course, not every author is feeling the crunch. “Big authors always sell, even in a really depressed market,” Baror-Shapiro said. For midlist authors, it’s a different story. Foreign publishers now seem to want what more and more American houses do: “big names; a big, hot debut; or something tied to an event.”
At the Gernert Company, Rebecca Gardner has seen a steady falloff in prices since 2009, and they continue to dip. She said that foreign-rights sales, and the size of advances, dropped most sharply in the European countries hardest hit by the recession—Spain, Portugal, Greece, and, “more recently, Italy.” She also sees a decline that has not abated. “In other markets such as France and the Netherlands, the economic slowdown may have been less precipitous, thanks to government programs and other factors, but there’s a sense that things are starting to reach new lows.” While Gardner noted that the German market has “remained relatively buoyant,” she’s seeing changes even there. In addition to a general shrinking of foreign-rights advances, Gardner believes many European editors are waiting longer to close deals. Big books with the right amount of buzz behind them, she explained, used to routinely be acquired by foreign editors shortly after going out on submission. Now she’s finding that international editors are waiting longer to make their decisions, “and want to understand much better the full context of how a book is published [in the U.S.].”
Cullen Stanley at Janklow & Nesbit trotted out a repast you often hear from editors—at book fairs, and elsewhere: “Good books sell!” Beyond that, though, she thinks stronger domestic publishing programs in foreign countries may be more to blame for the stiffer competition selling translation rights than the tough economic conditions.
Andrew Wylie, who runs an eponymous agency and is a veteran of the Frankfurt Book Fair, feels the international market started improving a few months ago. “I think the worst is behind us in Europe, and Asia is fine. Asia wasn’t the issue; Europe was.” While Wylie admitted that the Spanish market continues to show signs of “trouble,” he feels it’s counterbalanced by the strength of the Latin American markets. Overall, Wylie said, his agency is seeing “prices rising again.”
Many sources PW spoke to dismissed the theory that e-books are still disrupting foreign markets enough to come into play on translation-rights deals. As Wylie explained, publishers abroad now have a better picture of how e-books affect their bottom lines and know that digital is a boon for them—“because there’s no warehousing or returns.”