It is not that easy to sell your foreign rights without an agent or a publisher, but it’s not impossible. Women’s fiction author Kay Raymer did the whole agent query routine in 2000, but nobody would look at her novel, Hannah Street. So she sent the manuscript to her attorney, who happened to know someone at Bertelsmann / Germany. Bertelsmann made an offer on the book, and her lawyer helped arrange the contract. As a result, Raymer’s first novel appeared in Germany in 2001, a paperback original called Das Rosenhaus. Read more in Gwen Ellery’s article.
Most agents charge 20% (or sometimes even 25%) on foreign sales (including British and translations).
This 20% rate is justified because normally two agents are involved (the second one being in the foreign country), and they end up splitting the commission.
You should never agree to be paying over 25% commissions for any type of sale.
Note that your foreign sales will likely be subject to a local withholding tax (10% is common), and that all of that tax burden will be borne by you (that is, the agent will take his or her commission off the pre-tax gross).
If you are not represented already, why not try to find agents or even publishers yourself in other countries, especially if you speak more than one language?
I just found a blog post from a successful writer, who did just that: searched the internet, found contact addresses of agents in other countries and contacted them. He wrote:
“How does one sell rights in the international marketplace?
My first foreign rights sales occurred as a result of Book Expo America, where for a small fee my book was displayed in a co-op booth. Although the book didn’t take Book Expo by storm — as I somehow thought it would — it received interest from and I sold translation rights to publishers in Mexico, Poland and Nigeria. If publishers in such diverse countries and cultures wanted the book, I was sure publishers in other countries would also want it.” Read the whole article here: http://axiomawards.wordpress.com/2008/09/05/selling-foreign-rights-around-the-world/
Morris Rosenthal gives also great, detailed tips in his article about book contracts.
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