Last year, we researched “Territorial rights in the digital age” for Livres Canada Books. The final report, which is still available for C$30, included recommendations for:
- Selling digital rights by territory
- Retaining digital rights and selling through an aggregator (e.g., Kobo)
- Retaining digital rights and selling directly
The research came to mind while reading “What about foreign translation rights?”, a post by Shawn Coyne of Black Irish Books. In it, Coyne argues for retaining worldwide rights and selling directly. He also suggests that originating publishers might someday create their own translations.
Based on our earlier work, I agree with Coyne on worldwide rights, at least for selling digital content. I’m less certain about his approach to translations, for a reason that Coyne seems to have missed it his post: Lag time.
As Coyne points out, access to digital catalogs is now universal:
“Someone with a great broadband connection in Uzbekistan can get to www.stevenpressfield.com just as quickly as someone in the United States. Why not offer them an Uzbek edition alongside the English language editions? Why sell Uzbek rights to someone you’ve never met in the hopes that they’ll be able to find the guy who already logged onto your website?”
The answer may be that someone else can translate a book into Uzbek faster (and more cost-effectively) than you can.
With digital content, at least two things are true: small markets (the English-speaking cohort in Uzbekistan, for example) are now within reach; and not being available in a desired format and language creates the conditions for piracy.
The tradeoff is a matter of time. Coyne is right to make a digital version of Black Irish Books available worldwide as soon as possible. He’s also right to offer a translated version as a worldwide product.
The trick is figuring out how to do that quickly. Sometimes partners are a better option.