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Publishing Interviews: The Foreign Rights Agent

In the latest of her series of interviews with publishing industry professionals, author Claire Fuller speaks to Juliet Mahony, Foreign Rights Agent at Lutyens & Rubinstein (L&R), a London-based literary agency. Read on to find out about the role of a foreign rights agent.

Claire: Hello Juliet. When I was starting out as a writer I had no idea that there was such a thing as a foreign rights agent, let alone what they did. Can you tell me about your role at L&R and what an average day is like for you?

Juliet: I oversee the L&R authors whose rights we handle, being published into foreign languages and also in subsidiary rights, like an audio edition for example. I work directly with publishers in The Netherlands and in Scandinavia but in most other territories I work with sub-agents on the ground who will deal with publishers in their territories directly. Most of my day to day will be liaising with publishers and sub-agents: updating them on any rights or awards news, fielding requests about rights and permissions (for cover images, for example) or questions about translations (e.g. about titles). I will also be letting authors know about new offers or passing on covers and title translations for approval, or suggested narrator clips for their audio editions. I also handle all of the contracts on the rights side so I’ll set aside at least one day a week for that too.

C: Sometimes, depending on how a book’s foreign rights have been sold it’s handled by the publisher, and sometimes handled by people like you in a literary agency. Can you explain a bit more about how it works?

J: Generally speaking, we try and keep the rights to handle here – in the majority it’s better for the client since any rights a publisher handles will be split with them in a larger percentage than we take on commission of our deals. We’re also able to give each book the attention it deserves since we don’t take on hundreds of books a year. The only areas for us where the publisher is more likely to be in a better position to handle rights is for children’s book and cookery – both of which are more specialised.

C: Are there differences in how things are done between the different territories?

J: The bones of what needs to happen are essentially the same but different territories do react or behave differently. For example, Dutch publishers can be likely to move quicker since they have so many English readers their editions can get undercut by an English edition so they want to make sure they can publish at the same time (usually). Germany is the strongest translation market so they usually move quickly as they’re not afraid to compete. Different genres also do better in different places so I know certain territories will be more interested in a non-fiction proposal, for example.

C: How do you go about convincing a sub-agent (and editors they work with) to take on/ buy a book?

J: You always need a good pitch and in translation it’s useful to think more abruptly in ‘slots’. A novel that falls between two genres is likely to be a trickier sell. I think it can be good to liken it to something that will give context and references (THE BEACH meets TRUE ROMANCE – or something). I think too that if you really love a book it’s infectious and people will move it to the top of their reading pile when they can sense it. The translation market is shrinking though and it’s more expensive and time consuming for foreign editors to publish books they have to translate, so they often want to wait until they can have reassurances of good UK/US reviews and sales figures.

C: What’s the best thing about your job, and the worst?

J: The best thing is definitely all the different people I work with around the world! It’s so interesting talking to them about the books that are working well, where they’re from, and what their audience is like. And the worst thing is probably chivvying clients about their tax forms – having had many painful dealings with HMRC I know what a nightmare it is and have a huge amount of sympathy!

C: What books have you read in the last year that you’ve loved?

J: I’m slightly late to the party on these two but this year I’ve particularly loved Elizabeth Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE and ALL MY PUNY SORROWS by Miriam Toews. I’ve also read about five Angela Thirkell novels which are my ultimate comfort reading.

C: What advice would you give to authors when thinking about foreign rights?

J: The translation market is tough and there are certain things that make it even more difficult – anything London-centric or British in a way that won’t appeal to a global market, for example, or on a more practical level, length! If your book hasn’t sold in translation, don’t be discouraged. It might be that your next book hits the market in a better place. I often sell second or third books rather than a debut.

C: What career route have you followed, and do you have any advice for people looking to get a job like yours?

J: I started here as an intern while I was still at University and then when I graduated I became an assistant and worked my way up from there. Now I handle our rights and I’m also beginning to take on clients of my own. I guess my advice would be to remind people that companies remember a good intern! It’s a small industry so a recommendation goes a long way. If you’re starting at the bottom, get stuck in and soak up as much as possible.

C: What do you think would surprise readers of this series about what you do?

J: This is awful but, while I'm doing my best to learn, *whispers* I don’t actually speak any other languages. It’s something I’m deeply ashamed of and I think people would be surprised to hear it’s not strictly necessary when you’re selling rights.

C: I don’t speak any other languages, and my mother’s German, so don’t worry too much. Thanks for your time, Juliet, and for giving such fascinating answers.

Claire Fuller is the author of Our Endless Numbered Days, and forthcoming, Swimming Lessons. Visit her website here

Click here to read the first interview in Claire's publishing series with a Literary Reader.

Click here to read the second interview in Claire's publishing series with a Literary Agent.

Click here to read Claire's interview with a Publishing Director.