Why are co-editions such an important part of children’s book publishing, and how do they come about? And what happens at international book fairs? To find out more about rights selling, I spoke to Melissa Tombling, Children’s Rights Director at HarperCollins.
What is the function of a Rights Department?
I met Melissa a couple of days after she had returned from a trip to Japan, and asked if she could give me a definition of her job. ‘It is really to maximise sales opportunities outside the UK trade. Anything that isn’t a trade sale counts as a subsidiary rights sale. There are two ways of selling those rights, that fundamental right to publish, and we do it either through granting a licence to someone else to print books or use the material, or through providing physical copies.’ How many books are we talking about? ‘HarperCollins publish around 200 new children’s titles each year, of which around 50 or 60 will come with a package of rights that we can sell. We always try to get all rights for picture books and illustrated non-fiction as we sometimes need to organise international co-editions to make our own printings work financially and keep the UK published price down. And of course our work doesn’t finish when a book is first published but goes on throughout a book’s life.’
Those co-editions explained
Melissa explained the need to build a book’s printing numbers with editions for other countries in order to help make the costs work for the original UK edition. ‘One of the main reasons to increase the run is to get the unit cost down for our own edition, but it is important, too, to get big print runs to attract and keep authors and illustrators – they judge success by how many languages their book is sold in.’ A recent success for Melissa is this autumn’s Aunty Dot’s Incredible Adventure Atlas, which has nine co-editions and a total worldwide print run of close to 100,000 copies.
The importance of co-editions to picture book production means that Melissa will be in on the decision-making process, giving her opinion on often scant material as to whether there’s likely to be any overseas sales. ‘It’s a delicate balance. We can be influential as to how a project develops, pointing out things that would inhibit big sales in the USA, for example. If a double decker red bus is essential to the plot, you have to accept that overseas sales might be limited. If such things are only incidental it is better to change them at the outset. Coloured lettering, too, just adds too much to the expense to enable co-edition partners to join in, so it’s best avoided.’ But there are exceptions that transcend these constrictions. ‘Brambly Hedge is a huge success in Japan,’ Melissa says, pointing to Japanese editions piled high on her shelves, ‘as it represents a way of life they don’t have and they like it.’
The selling begins
‘At the time of the acquisition of a title, we have to commit to some numbers we think we can do, just as the UK sales department has to commit. This can be 18 months/2 years before a book is published. We usually work from colour proofs of picture books, or detailed rough dummies for non-fiction, but we will show something earlier in a rougher form if it’s the next one in a series or if it’s something special. We’ve been showing just two early pieces of Christian Birmingham’s brilliant new work for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because it won’t be in proof form until next spring, for publication next autumn.’
Melissa explained the even more vital role the rights department has in the sale of non-fiction. ‘The up-front investment on non-fiction can be ten or twelve times higher than on a picture book, so we’re looking for serious financial commitment earlier to make the projects work at all. It’s a more complex operation, with different space needed for different languages to fit around the integrated text and pictures, so rights, production and editorial have to work very closely together.’ Selling fiction, on the other hand, has a different set of circumstances again. ‘We sell rights, not copies, and that usually happens after our edition is published. Not everyone wants to use our line drawings, though we do have some very popular series like Ian Whybrow’s Little Wolf books, where Tony Ross’s illustrations have added to the huge success in 6 or 7 other languages.’
Melissa has four people working with her, and two of her colleagues join her in going on four selling trips each around the world, as well as selling at the two major international book fairs each year – Bologna in April and Frankfurt in October. ‘We plan our trips to be just before or just after the fairs, so we have two really busy parts of the year, and of course masses of telephone and faxing work to be done in between.’ Melissa sells to the UK book clubs, to Japan, the Far East, Italy and Holland. ‘It’s a strange mix, but it’s just the way it turned out. One colleague sells to the USA, France, Spain, Portugal, Latin America, and another looks after Germany, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Like the UK, all markets are changing all the time so it’s important to keep up with the territories you’re selling to, and visiting the countries means you can visit your contacts in their own environment, meet their colleagues and visit bookshops to give yourself more of an understanding of their market conditions. Selling at book fairs is incredibly pressured, with appointments only lasting half an hour, so it’s vital to have that extra time visiting people in their offices.’
Selling UK rights
I asked Melissa about the UK market – what about selling rights to TV companies? ‘At HarperCollins all television and merchandising sales are handled by a separate, dedicated department. In the UK we have very strong and important sales to school and home book clubs and book fairs to deal with, too. We do four or six major presentations a year, and send submissions weekly. We have all the new books to sell to clubs, not just the books we’re getting co-editions for, and covers play an even more crucial part when the book is being sold off the page. However good the inside might be, it’s the cover that has to sell the book.’
What skills are needed?
I asked Melissa if it was important to speak languages in her job, and she thinks it essential. She speaks French and Japanese. ‘You can get to know people so much better if you speak their language, and it is polite, too. If you don’t understand the language you miss out on the discussion going on around the table, which can be crucial.’
But there are other skills needed to. ‘Marketing is one of the key skills, working out how best to sell your project to maximum effect. And alongside the selling there has to be negotiating, and a huge amount of detailed administration to follow through. Contracts are raised in our department, but signed off by the legal department.’ Melissa highlights a need to think quickly on your feet, too. ‘At book fairs you have to switch moods and styles at half hourly intervals, meeting someone from Brazil, then someone from Holland, and then switch gear to speak to someone from Japan. You have to remember details about past deals, future plans, and be sensitive to the character of the person you are talking to, whom you may have known for years or have only just met.’
The route to the top
I asked Melissa how she had reached her current position, and she told me about her busy career so far. ‘I worked for Book Club Associates on stock promotions, and through contacts I had made there I got a job at Reed Children’s Books where I was selling books to book clubs. Then I moved to Japan for a year with my husband and did freelance work for Kodansha publishers, where I did a combination of marketing and rights work. When we came back I worked for a children’s non-fiction packaging company, selling rights, but when that went into receivership I did marketing and sales support work for an academic publisher. In 1994 I joined HarperCollins as Children’s Rights Manager and have always sold to bookclubs whilst having a changing range of overseas territories to sell to. In June this year I was made Rights Director.’
The worst and best bits
Melissa says the worst bit of her job is when everyone in the company is wildly enthusiastic about a project, including her, but she just can’t make a sale overseas. ‘And it’s just as bad if you’ve only got one country interested, but four or five publishers in that country are fighting over it – you can only sell it to one of them.’ But she says she loves having a worldwide perspective on publishing. ‘Being involved in overseas markets is always interesting, and when a project all comes together well and it’s a success for the company, the author and illustrator and the overseas publishers then I can feel enormously satisfied.’
And what of the future? Melissa is having a baby in January, so is frantically planning things to get her department ready to cope with her maternity leave. Plenty of time to think of the future once her own new reader is born, but there’s always a challenge waiting. ‘Although Nick Butterworth’s Percy books have sold all over the world, he’s still waiting for the right publisher in America. I’d really like to crack that one.’
Liz Attenborough was formerly Children’s Publisher at Penguin Books. She now works as a children’s book consultant.