Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing,  On Writing,  publishing

Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing… #4: You Need An Agent to Sell Overseas

Myths ignore facts. Myths are often beliefs built from fear or past actions.

In this series, and in the previous series of Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing, I call the myths that control writers “Sacred Cows.”

Writers hold onto myths like lifelines that are keeping them from drowning in a raging river of information. Sometimes sane people in the normal world will follow a publishing myth that makes no sense at all because it has something to do with the publishing business. And they follow the myth without thought.

So this new series is an attempt to help the new world of indie publishing with the growing list of myths that plague it.

And the fourth myth to hit indie writers is this:

You must have an agent to sell a book in translation overseas.

This myth is based out of newer writers just not knowing facts and agents trying to stay relevant in a changing world.

Some History

More than fifteen to twenty years ago, it was difficult, at best, to sell many translation rights overseas for your books that were published here in the States. It took connections and even knowing who the overseas publishers were. 

Then came along this funny little invention called e-mail. And the internet.

You all know what that is, I’m sure.

And overseas publishers could get directly in contact with writers. And with the increase in writer web sites, that’s how overseas publishers got hold of writers, who then in the early days, not knowing any better, (and I was no exception) just sent the overseas publisher on to my agent.

And that’s just the way it was done back in those dark days where we all had to walk both ways, uphill, in the snow, just to get a book published.  It was horrid, I tell you. Horrid.

But Things Have Changed

I know a lot of people, a vast number of people in agent-land and traditional publishing, don’t want newer professional writers to know things have changed. They want the old system to continue. But sadly for them, and great for the rest of us, things have changed a great deal.

Some general facts:

— In general, publishing contract with any publisher outside of North America is simpler by factors and factors. And easy to read.

— In general, publishing contracts from publishers outside of North America are clear to what the translation publisher is buying.

— In general, publishing contracts from publishers outside of North America have clear termination and reversion dates in them. And often limitations on print runs without a renewal.

— In general, after the first contract or two, you can do your own and negotiating is not often done. A small fee to an intellectual property attorney will often be enough on the first one or two.

— In general, most overseas contracts, (now all translation sales) are small unless your book is really taking off. Nature of smaller markets. Modern agents often don’t feel it is worth their time to do a short-term $500 contract and get $50. (Their overseas agent will take the other $50 in fee.) So they often don’t bother for their clients. Far too much work for them to deal with, they feel. (I personally like a $500 sales to a translation company.)

— In general, agents HATE contracts that have limited press runs, one fee, and no royalties because that means once they have the contract done, they get no more money and have no more hold on the book. So agents will try to make an overseas contract far, far more complex and add royalties.

— In general, the biggest area for agent embezzlement is from overseas book royalties. Author’s don’t know they are owed money because seldom do overseas agents forward the paperwork or the money from the overseas publisher, and if they do, the money often gets stopped or “forgotten” in the states agency. Hard for an author to actually get regular overseas royalty payments.

But How Do I Sell a Book Overseas Without An Agent?

This is the area that just stunned me when I learned it about agents. About one third of all agencies in the United States farm out their overseas sales to another agency here in the States that does nothing but sell books overseas. The second agency does massive lists with hundreds and hundreds of authors names and books on it. (Nothing more.)  And they regularly ship these gigantic lists to overseas agents to try to pitch to translation companies through overseas agents.

So, the flat honest truth is that unless you are a major bestseller, your book is ignored. When you have all the writers from twenty or thirty agencies on a huge list the size of a small town phone book, trust me, only the top even get looked at. And there are no covers or blurbs. Just title and author name, and sometimes genre.

That’s another ugly truth about how most agents “respect” your work and try to sell it overseas. They will flat tell you they are trying to sell you book overseas, then give the name and author name to another agency, who will add it on a list to go along with thousands of others.

So you are an indie writer. Right? How do you get your books noticed overseas?

Let me think…

Oh, yeah, you publish the thing in all markets. Duh.

Amazon, B&N, Kobo, iTunes, Smashwords, CreateSpace, and so on down through the smaller electronic distributors and international stores. And when you do, you click all the overseas channels.

And boom, your book is available in English worldwide.

Last month alone, Kris and I sold English language books in 26 different countries. That’s so normal, we seldom notice that now, where ten years ago, that would have been a major deal.

If you have your book available worldwide in English, people all around the world will have a chance to see your book, (with cover and blurb). If editor or someone at an overseas translation house reads your book and likes it (called a submission in the old world, but today they buy it instead), and the editor thinks your book will fit their translation line, the editor will contact you directly through your own publisher web site.

Or your author web site. (You do have “contact me” tabs, don’t you?)

So it goes like this so this is clear:

Step one… You publish your book through all electronic and paper outlets available. (Not just Kindle.)

Step two… Your book is available with your great cover and blurb, world-wide, for anyone to buy in English.

Step three… An editor of a translation line at a publisher in an overseas company is looking for books for his line that will fit his topic. He finds and buys your book and reads it and likes it and thinks it will fit his line of books.

Step four… The editor contacts you by e-mail.

Step five… The editor will often ask for who your representative is. You write them back and say simply. “My attorney and I handle all translation sales.”

Step six… The editor will make an offer directly to you. You say you are interested depending on the terms.

Step seven… The editor e-mails you a contract, you check it for rights grabs, sign it and e-mail it back.

Step eight…  The translation publisher will send you the money by Paypal, wire, or direct transfer into your bank account.


The translation publisher will  send you a copy of your book in French or German or whatever when the book hits print.

It really is that simple.

Scary simple.

Since I got rid of my agent, and Kris got rid of her agent, we get factors more offers from overseas publishers. The agents we had were blocking the small offers, while we take them, for the most part.

And the overseas translation publishers are finding our books because we are publishing them in English all over the world.  In every format through every store. And keeping them in print all over the world.

As I said, things have changed.

So Why Is This Myth Still So Strong?

Actually, in this new world, it’s logical why this myth that needing an agent to sell overseas is still strong.

1… Generally, newer professionals just feel this is scary. (It’s not, if you don’t panic and give it to an agent.)

2… Generally, newer professionals do not know copyright, which means they do not understand that all contracts must be done in the language of the author. (Berne Convention) They think they are going to get something in Chinese or something. Learn copyright, people.

3… Generally, agents are losing income and power by the day, so they promote this to get young, unwary professionals on board to sign their agency agreements. And many agency agreements are rights grabs of authors’ works. Yet authors sign them all the time and discover the hard way they are trapped and have signed away percentages of their book for life of the copyright.

4… Generally, this area is a large money-maker for agencies because authors allow agents to have all the money and all the paperwork with that money, so overseas sales are easy to just leave in the agency accounts and misplace the paperwork. (All unintentional, of course… cough) So agents really, really push this to unwary newer professional writers and older professionals too busy to think it through.

5… Generally, authors feel that selling overseas in translation means they must send out stories into slush piles or something like that to get an overseas publisher to look at their work. So they think agents have the contacts, and agents pretend they do have the contacts. (Their contact is another agency here in the States.)

Authors don’t realize that if they indie publish (not traditional), their books go out across the world to be seen.

And that’s all there is to it.


There is no reason at all in this modern world to have an agent on an overseas translation sale. None.

— Contracts are simple and you can spend a few bucks to have a IP rights attorney look at the first two or so until you feel comfortable with what you are reading.

— Contracts are in your language and the money comes directly to you.

— Translation publishers see your book if you are publishing it in English around the world. There is no such thing as “selling” done by an agent. Your book sells itself and they find it because it’s out there. (And if agent tries to convince you they can “sell your book overseas” ask them for a list of their overseas partner agencies, or ask if they go through a “specialty agency” here in the states. Either way, the agent who is telling you he will sell the book is lying, flat out. They will not. Period. They will simply hand off your book to someone else and do NO work.)

— The agent ship is going down quickly. Don’t have your books trapped in their agency agreements because you are afraid of something that might take you all of thirty minutes to do.

Holding  a copy of your book in translation in your hand is great fun. You might not be able to read it, but it sure feels neat.

Avoid this huge pitfall that agents are trying to sell you in desperation.

And have fun.


  • Denise Gaskins

    I’m surprised not to see any comments here. I hope you are still responding to old posts, because I hope to balance my total ignorance with a bit of your experience. I’ve received an offer for translation rights from a South Korean publisher, and the advance is fine. But the suggested 7%-of-net royalty rate seems very low to me.

    So I opened up my StoryBundle and read your Sacred Cows book and Kris’s Closing the Deal. You say above that foreign contracts are rarely negotiated, but Kris writes that publishers expect negotiation.

    Are foreign rights royalties usually that low, and I should just figure the advance is probably all I’ll ever get? Or should I respond with a counter-offer?

    • dwsmith


      You are dealing with a traditional publisher. In the States, a standard rate is 6-8% for mass market paper. So 7 % might be standard for South Korea.

      One thing to watch for is have either and end date or a set number of copies. But for indie, 7% is low, for traditional, that’s pretty standard, sadly. And translation publishers are traditional in nature.