Writers in the Storm

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July 24, 2015

Lessons Learned from Foreign Sales

Lori Nelson Spielman

LSJAt one time or another, most of us writers have second-guessed the choices we made about our book. Was the cover a misfit? Should we have gone with the original title? Would it have done better with a summer launch?

If only we were allowed a do-over, a chance to republish the book under a different title and cover, even a different season, and give our book a whole a new launch. Who knows? Everything might be different.

In essence, that’s what happens when a book releases in a foreign territory.

I’ll never forget the morning I received a message from my agent saying the Dutch bought the foreign rights. As an aspiring author, I was so focused on a U.S. deal, the thought of selling in another territory never occurred to me. And she didn’t stop with the Dutch. My savvy agent sold my novels far and wide.

I had no idea what this meant. Would I be answering to editors in each of these countries? Would they need help with the edits and translation? Would I be traveling the world, promoting my book?

I soon discovered that in most situations, I would have absolutely no interaction with the foreign publishers or translators. My agent and her foreign counterpart would make a deal with the publisher. I’d review and sign the contract, and months—or even years—later, a package would arrive on my doorstep. Inside I’d find a set of my novels with different a cover and title, sometimes hard cover, sometimes paperback, written in a language I could not read.

The Life List CoversAnd it’s been absolutely thrilling. Each new edition feels fresh and full of promise. In essence, these are my do-over books, my unique and fortuitous glimpse into what might have been, if things were done differently.

In four countries the books have reached the number one spot on the best sellers list. In Germany The Life List was one of the top books of 2014. Because of this, I just returned from a book tour in Germany and France for the release of my second book.

But there are other countries where sales have been mediocre, and still others where it fell flat. In a single day, I received a message saying the book hit the number one spot in a territory, followed by a second email complaining about disappointing sales in another.

What, exactly, did the French, German, Israeli, and Taiwanese publishers do so well? Really good translators who took great liberty with my writing? Possibly. Or maybe the theme resonated more with certain cultures. Or perhaps the key is marketing and promotion.

We authors are told we must promote our books. And in the U.S. I did—both online and in person. But did it make a difference?

I’ve compared some data in the US and Germany, using The Life List as an example. You be the judge ...

I’ve lost track of how many guest blog invitations I accepted here in the US. But I do remember how many guest blogs I contributed in Germany: zero.

I’ve attended over fifty book clubs in the U.S.. Compare that to Germany, where I’ve attended no book clubs.

I’ve spoken and signed books in dozens of bookstores here in the States. I did my very first book event in Germany last May—for my second book.

But that doesn’t mean the book wasn’t promoted. It just wasn’t self-promoted.

I clearly remember my German editor’s statement after she’d purchased the novel. “It was my must-have book.” And she treated it as such. During the launch, huge displays adorned the major bookstores in Germany. Did this energy and in-house enthusiasm make the difference?

It appears that it did. But like my editor said, even with lots of hype, a book can still fall flat.

What I wouldn’t give to uncover the elusive formula for selling books. Choose a bright cover and a snappy title, launch in the spring with some big bookstore displays and, voila! You’ve got a bestseller.

But the truth is, I haven’t a clue. It seems selling books is a bit of a crapshoot. Each best selling cover and title was different from the other, ranging from whimsical (France) to borderline dark (Israel). They launched in different seasons, with varied levels of promotion.

Though I haven’t uncovered the key to a best seller, I have learned something valuable from my foreign sales experience: we cannot judge our talent or our success by the number of books we sell.

If I had only the US sales figures to measure my success, I’d consider myself mediocre. If I based it on Germany’s sales, I’d have an over-inflated ego. And if I’d only sold the UK edition, my career would be over and I might be contemplating the view from the nearest bridge.

Instead, we must trust ourselves, continue to believe in the value of our work, regardless of numbers. We must celebrate the good stuff without getting cocky, learn from the bad without being disheartened, and try not take ourselves—or this fickle and capricious industry—too seriously.

I'd love to hear from other WITS readers about your experience with foreign sales or different format sales (large print, audio, etc).

About Lori

SF cover 2 copyLori Nelson Spielman lives in Michigan with her husband. Sweet Forgiveness is her second novel. She is currently on leave from her teaching job while she works on her third. Please visit Lori’s website at www.LoriNelsonSpielman.com.


18 comments on “Lessons Learned from Foreign Sales”

    1. Thank you, Kathy and Orly. I'm so glad you found it encouraging. For me, it was definitely a lesson in how the same book could have such varied levels of success (or failure!) I'm happy you enjoyed it.

  1. This was such an interesting post!

    I honestly believe, aside from a publishers treatment of a book, that word of mouth is the next huge factor in a book's success. Your points above about blog tours, book clubs, etc., and in Germany where none of that happened, seems to underscore that. IDK. I do know that aside from reading various websites which promote books, word of mouth is how I learn of the good ones.

    1. I completely agree, Donnaeve. Word of mouth is a huge factor in a book's success, and generally how I choose books, too. Thanks for your comments.

  2. What a wonderful blog post. I just - this week- signed with an agent and she will be going after audio and foreign language rights for my first three books and I really hope she is able to sell them. I would love to see what the covers end up looking like and trying to figure out what they say. But in the mean time, I am just believing in myself and writing the best stories that I can. It's a fantastic thing being a writer.

    1. Congratulations to you, Kori! I wish you all the best! You sound very grounded, and that belief in yourself will be important as you continue to write. It really is fantastic being a writer--thanks for the reminder of how very fortunate we are. All best to you!

  3. This is such an interesting post! Thank you! Right now, a novel I co-authored, I'll Be Seeing You, is doing fantastically well in paperback in France. It did fine in hardcover, but wasn't exactly a bestseller. Last I checked the PB edition was #181 on Amazon France. We sold to Italy two years ago, and no release so far. We did not do all that great in Germany. The covers, like the experiences, are all vastly different. I've been told by some French friends that the translation is very good, but I wouldn't have a clue. I also wonder how much it matters. It's all so unpredictable!

    Another wonderful aspect of foreign sales is the bonus income. Most people get modest advances these days, so the extra cash is a welcome surprise.

    1. Congratulations on all of your foreign sales, Loretta. I've heard great things about I'll Be Seeing You. It really is a funny thing, how one book can vary so widely from country to country. Fingers crossed for another huge hit in Italy when it releases. Continued success to you and Suzanne!

  4. Thank you so much, Wendy. I was very lucky that my agent was aggressive with foreign rights. Best wishes to you!

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