The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues #3: Foreign Sales

NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 143, Fall, 1999.

MIKE: One of a writer’s most important sources of income is the foreign sale. Actually, I shouldn’t use the singular; if you make only one foreign sale on a book, you’re barely scratching the surface of the vast overseas market.

I remember the first foreign sales I made, back in 1982. The Germans offered me about a thousand dollars less than I’d made for the American sale, and a week later the Japanese actually offered me a thousand more than I’d gotten here. It was then that I counted up how many countries were in the United Nations and realized there was gold in them thar hills.

I would consider it a given that any midlist writer, when the dust finally clears, will have made more money from foreign sales than he will make domestically. (One caveat: this doesn’t necessarily hold for bestsellers, people making, say, $100,000 US or more per U.S. advance. But they don’t need to worry about foreign sales, anyway; if they just stand still, they’ll be surrounded by foreign editors eager to throw money at them.)

Now, I’m not saying any single foreign advance will equal the American advance; it won’t. But — and let’s price these things reasonably, not at the high or low end — if you sell Japan ($5,000 US), England ($6,000 US), France ($4,000 US), Germany ($4,000 US), Poland ($1,500 US), Russia ($1,500 US), and Italy ($4,000 US) . . . well, hell, that’s $26,000 US for a midlist book and you’ve still got more than 100 countries to go.

(Yeah, I know . . . it’d be nice to make even more, and some people do on some of their titles. But most foreign publishers pay royalties. In fact, I have never sold a book to France, Italy or Japan that didn’t pay royalties sooner or later, a blanket statement I cannot make about my American editions.)

Of course there’s a minus side as well as a plus side. The first foreign title I ever sold was The Soul Eater, a story that was as close as I ever come to hard science; most of the book is set on a spaceship, and takes place inside a lonely man’s head. And the cover of the first foreign copy of it that I saw had a bare-breasted warrior woman brandishing a sword. Kinda makes you hope the translator paid more attention to it than the art director.

And yes, your works can get pirated, and yes, you often don’t find out about that for years thereafter.

You can also get paid in full and spend the next five years trying to get the author’s copies that the contract calls for.

You can also — and this is incredibly frustrating — sell two or three books to a country, earn out your advance and then some, and fail to sell them the next four books. Or you can have a foreign editor buy only the middle book of your trilogy, leaving the audience just a tad confused about how it all began and where it will all end. And you can go nuts waiting for an explanation for same.

But anyone who ignores or disdains the foreign markets does so at his (very real) financial peril.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: Of course, you need an agent for foreign markets. I suppose it’s possible to make contacts and sell directly — the Internet and e-mail have made previously inaccessible foreign markets quite reachable — but it’s still difficult to make cold sales on the basis of correspondence. (Maybe it’s a little easier with short stories; there are less levels of approval through which to pass to place a short story . . . and less money of course.)

Getting an agent isn’t all that difficult if you’ve already had one on the domestic sale: all USA agents have cooperating foreign agents who are routinely sent copies of clients’ work on publication. Some USA agents have part-time or full-time foreign rights people who make these submissions, some simply function as a remailing service to Agence Lenclud in Paris or Paul Fritz in Switzerland, but all will accomplish coverage.

If you’ve published a book domestically, however, and you don’t have an agent, the foreign markets would constitute the strongest reason to now get one (and with a creditable novel sale you’ll find it much easier, of course, than you would as an unpublished writer). Agents and cooperating agents vary in their efficacy in the foreign markets, just as they do with everything else, but all of them are essentially dealing with the same overseas publishers, the same cooperating agents, and the variance in outcome, advances and so on, may not be as great in the foreign market as it is domestically.

These are strange, quirky markets as you indicate. I have never been able to assess or predict them. (This may have more to do with my work than the market, of course.) In the 1970s I managed six or seven novel sales to England over a period of five or ten minutes; I’ve never subsequently sold a book there. I sold four or five novels to France in about 15 minutes in the 1970s, and have not placed a work there since. My best-known novel sold to Japan in the 1970s for a $300 advance (less tax and 20% commission) and paid out about $80.00 in royalties over the next ten years; the only other Japanese sale was a knockoff novel which Bill Pronzini and I wrote in a couple of weeks in 1980, which sunk out of sight on publication here. and which received in Japanese advance and royalties about 50 times what Beyond Apollo did. I can’t claim to understand any of this, or why Finland stopped after the acquisition of the first three Lone Wolf novels — but Norway loyally, insistently, published all fourteen. (Hard to get excited in either case; Scandinavian advances in the 1970s for paperback originals were about $200 US. Haven’t improved all that markedly since.)

In the old, bad days, foreign rights were additional, discretionary income; genre novels sold for remarkably low prices and rarely earned royalties. In the 1960s and 1970s the Scott Meredith Agency was selling science fiction novels to Germany for $300-$400 US, to France for about the same, to Spain or the South American countries for barely three figures. Italian advances weren’t much better and British advances were only a little bit better than that. That’s not the case now, of course; there was a period recently, and it may still exist, when British advances for medium-level science fiction novels were higher than domestic advances and there were careers and reputations which were being driven by the foreign markets. (Gibson has always been a bestseller in Japan; Germany has paid out much more over the years than her own country for Marion Zimmer Bradley’s overwhelmingly successful The Mists of Avalon, and that novel has been on German bestseller lists continuously for more than a decade and a half.)

We’re talking for the most part, of course, about the old NATO group and our own hemisphere. The Westernization of the Communist countries this decade has opened up a huge market which is no longer pirating (Phil Dick was a bestselling writer in the 1970s in places like Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary: never got a cent) but paying. I know you’ve had remarkable success in the Iron Curtain countries. Tell me about it.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: Back at the beginning of the decade, just after the Iron Curtain turned to Kleenex, a lot of magazine editors from the Soviet bloc hit the Worldcons — especially Chicago and Orlando in 1991 and 1992 (and later Scotland in 1995). Most of them didn’t have two dimes to rub together; their countries were destitute, and they didn’t have any publishing industry to speak of.

Well, these editors came around at the Worldcons, shyly approaching a number of writers, and asking for free gifts of stories, or perhaps offering a whole $25 US apiece for them. I unloaded a couple of dozen stories, including some Hugo winners and Hugo nominees. A couple of friends — I won’t name them, since they’re still friends and still SFWA members — took me to task for my inept business decision, explaining that I was a pro, and pros didn’t let major stories, even reprints, go for such pittances.

I replied that as I read the situation, there was no book publishing industry in these countries, but there soon would be. And when that happy day arrived, it made sense to me that the book editors would be most interested in those Americans who had already established a local fan following. And the only way to establish it was to let those stories go for a few cents or a few dollars or perhaps only a hearty handshake. They told me I was crazy, that these were little more than fanzines I was selling to. I explained that, whatever their appearance, they were currently the top of an expanding market, and that was good enough for me.

So okay, half a dozen years have passed. I’ve sold 26 books to Poland, none for under $1,500 US; I’ve sold 19 books to Russia, none for under $1,500 US, some for more than double that; I’ve sold 7 books to Bulgaria, 6 to the Czech Republic, a few to Lithuania. Croatia hasn’t got a book publishing industry yet, but I sold them three Hugo-winning short stories, and one of them recently won their highest award, so I feel reasonably confident that when a book publisher finally arrives on the Croatian scene, I’ll have a receptive market.

As for my two friends who would never let a reprint go for under $100 US, I don’t believe either of them has yet made a single sale to an Iron Curtain country.

(Okay, so you don’t get rich on any one of these sales . . . but $2,500 US here and $1,500 US there and $2,000 US the other place, where there were never any markets before, begins to add up quickly — and there’s no heavy lifting involved.)

You have long said that this remains a field of personal cachet, and I think that holds for foreign sales as well. This is why I try to hit at least one foreign convention every year or two: so that I can meet with my foreign editors and agents face-to-face.

I was just guest of honor at a convention in France, where I not only met my editors, but nine of my French and Italian translators — and while it probably doesn’t hold true in France, it’s a fact of life in many countries that the translator has as much influence over whether you sell or not as the editor. (So I always make a point of visiting with my Japanese translators at Worldcon, and I’ve had my Russian translator stay as a guest in my house when he was touring America. A nice side effect was that he not only continued to buy my books, but after meeting my daughter one evening at dinner, he bought some of her novels as well.)

I find that the more established Western countries run their business pretty much the way we do, and while I’m always happy to meet my English, French, German and Italian editors, the initial contact, negotiations, and contract goes through my domestic and foreign agents. But in many Second and Third World countries, they’re re-inventing the wheel, and I find I can do more business personally, via e-mail and computer conferences, than through the normal channels. It’s enjoyable — I mean, hell, I enjoy the company of anyone who wants to spend money on me — but it’s also about as efficient as Second and Third World publishing gets, circa 1999.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: You’re being kind. I’d probably have been one of those people telling you, “Whatta you, crazy? Whatta you doing, selling stories to fans or would-be publishers for $25 US or for nothing at all? Aren’t you the guy who keeps telling us, ‘Let’s get this straight: if you’re a writer they’re supposed to pay you. You don’t pay them. You don’t give away your work.’ I wouldn’t have dealt with these people until they had something other than hope, until they could put up something other than a token payment or no payment at all.”

And in so doing, you have already reminded me, I would have taken myself out of tens of thousands of dollars, a flourishing exposure of my work in the Eastern European bloc, with far more to come. I can’t quarrel with that: you have the evidence and the outcome.

But I still don’t know if I’d do it, granted that the opportunity came to me. You have to understand that my perceptions of the foreign markets are based not only upon my own difficult experience but upon decades of observing foreign publishers, overseas fans, their ambitions and their ethics, while employed at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. Some of these folks have worked out okay and some haven’t worked out at all. The problem is that you don’t know the difference going in and I’m not smart enough, unagented, to make that judgment.

I’ve already noted that Phil Dick learned toward the end of his life that he was a bestselling writer in Hungary, Poland, other parts of the grand and unlamented Soviet Union. This was news to him because he had never seen any money at all from those countries. Stanislaw Lem, Phil Dick was told, was a great fan and had translated several of Dick’s novels into Polish. “That is interesting, because I have never heard a word from Mr. Lem, much less received a contract,” Dick noted.

Okay, that was then, this is now: capitalism is about to flourish, may already be flourishing, and those bad old stories about Poland belong to the south forty along with the discarded shoes and plumbing equipment for the outhouse; we are moving into One World International Internet Publishing. Good enough, Mike, except that my own perceptions were formed in a hard and grimmer school. (It took me months to collect a five dollar payment for the translation of a story into Esperanto, for heaven’s sake. An Argentinean publisher sent me contracts for rights in that country to Beyond Apollo and subsequently a $300 US check drawn on an Andorran bank . . . the check bounced because, I was informed many months later, Andorra had the fetching and pleasant habit of allegedly not putting any money into private hands located outside the country. Do you note that? No money. To any human being. Not in the country of Andorra.) The Argentinean editor became and remained mute. I have many similar narratives. (And I also don’t have stories. Like so many of us, I have been pirated utterly without my knowledge before, during and after.) Do you think the freelance writer is often helpless when her interests are juxtaposed against the interests of domestic editors and publishers? Try to gauge the helplessness when the editor is in Argentina. Or Andorra.

Okay: I am a traumatized child, dysfunctional home, all of that, telling bad stories about bad times; it has changed. But I have a deep and abiding suspicion of the foreign rights situation. It varies, of course. I don’t mean to generalize — the British are more equitable today than most of our conglomerates; Paul and Peter Fritz are sensational in extracting royalty statements, royalties, and renewed licenses from German publishers; there are some wholly equitable publishers everywhere; and European publishers can be trusted, more or less.

But I still wouldn’t give Hugo-winning stories for $25 US or less to people I meet at conventions or online expressing only good intentions; I wouldn’t sell six or three books to an unknown Polish publisher before I had been paid for the first. At least, I wouldn’t do it unagented. If I had an agent I trusted who in turn had a cooperating agent in the Eastern bloc who she trusted, well, then, maybe. And then again maybe not, because your domestic agent can be no less helpless in the face of distant venery than thee or me.

Too much caution, a failure of trust leading to many lost opportunities? Very possibly. But let the opposition be heard. Caveat emptor and all that.

All this being said, I congratulate you on the quantity of your sales to the former Eastern bloc and the size of the advances. You done splendid. But most of us don’t — by virtue of your intelligence, awards, and overwhelming competence — have your leverage.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: You forgot to mention my manly good looks.

Look, it wasn’t all that bold and daring a thing to do. I didn’t give any books away. The whole purpose was to make the books worth something in an emerging market that probably hadn’t heard of any American science fiction writers except Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, and maybe two or three others. And seriously, what do you think a reprint of a short story, even a Hugo-winning short story, is worth? The way I saw it — the way I still see it — is that you’ve got a hell of an upside (i.e., lots of book sales), a tiny downside (i.e., maybe you’ll lose a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of stories that no one else in that country wants anyway), and it’s an easy call.

I should add that while I may have made the initial contact, or plotted the strategy, I do have agents in all these countries, and they negotiate the contracts.

I suppose, while we’re on the subject of foreign sales, we ought to talk about payment. Right now (and I’m writing this just before the Euro goes into circulation and perhaps changes the whole set-up), the only major markets that pay in their own currencies are England, France, Germany, and Italy . . . and because of that, there’s extra money to be made from those countries if you know what you’re doing.

One of the first things I did when I started making foreign sales was to have my agents in each of those countries set up local bank accounts and deposit my checks there. Then I started studying the foreign exchange rates. (I’m no expert, so I went to an expert for advice.)

What’s this leading up to? Let me give you an example.

In 1989, I sold Ivory: A Legend of Past and Future, to my British publisher for an advance of £10,000. The afternoon I signed the contract, the pound was trading at $1.53 US, which means my advance was worth $15,300 US as of that day. By the time they finally cut the check and my British agent deposited it in my London account, the pound was trading at $1.61 US. I waited until my expert felt the rate had peaked and was due to come down, and brought it to America when the pound was trading for $1.92 US. That made my advance worth $19,200 US — a profit of $3,900 US simply because I waited out the exchange rates.

Almost no one pays in “soft” currencies anymore, but once upon a time they did. My first Polish book sale was in zlotys (all my subsequent Polish sales have been in dollars). Now, zlotys weren’t worth the powder to blow them to hell if you tried to import them and exchange them for dollars, so I left them in a Polish account. In the States, converted into American dollars, these millions of zlotys were worth about $350 US; in Poland, they were worth about $1,600 US at the time. So I waited until I found a friend who was touring Eastern Europe, and sold him my zlotys for $1,200 US. He was happy, I was happy, my Polish bank was a willing accomplice, and all was well that ended well.

Which is simply another way of saying that it can sometimes be very profitable to deal creatively with foreign funds.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: Currency speculation, playing with the varying strength of the dollar against foreign currencies . . . that’s all beyond me. I’m a simple, one-celled organism as my collaboratrice, Kathleen Koja, used to note, consistent right down to the bottom. All that concerns me is collection: if it comes through a USA agent, the agent takes care of the conversion; if it comes from an overseas agent, then my bank will (although the German agent with whom I’ve worked for decades now makes the conversion at his end and pays, eventually, in American funds.) You are talking to a man, remember, who took months to collect a $5.00 US payment for Esperanto rights. And who, when it at long last emerged, was glad to get it.

Send me the money, that’s my mantra. Not show me the money, the catch-phrase which came out of Jerry Maguire a couple of years ago, that’s different. “Show me the money” implied ” . . . and then I’ll decide what to do.” “Send me the money” means exactly that: “Send me the money.” Five dollars for Esperanto? A hundred dollars for Portuguese rights to a novel? Two hundred for Italian rights to The Men Inside or Beyond Apollo? No problem. Ship it in, take them out. If you’ll send it by next Thursday, you can deduct 20% for the consideration. You can understand why currency speculation might be a topic of lesser concern to the lovable and ever hopeful Kid, here.

I know enough about the foreign markets to know that I can neither predict nor control; they are not to be understood. The German agent to whom I referred earlier — Thomas Schluck, he’s represented my work for 27 years, as long as I’ve been in this house — told me a long time ago, when I was pleading with him to get me a sale, any kind of sale, I needed the money, “You don’t understand what the situation should be. Anything I do for you should be seen as good news, as something extra. You cannot count on me to do anything and you cannot budget the money.” Reasonable, and I’ve tried to accept that.

David Goodis, wholly out of print in the USA (with the exception of Down There, which sells a few copies in trade a year), still receives by his Estate’s proxy (he’s been dead 12 years) tens of thousands a year from France and Germany, and has had at least 15-20 films produced in those countries based on his work. Cornell Woolrich, virtually the same situation, is revered in France, his work kept alive by the Truffaut and noir cult. Jim Thompson sold nothing in the USA in his last five years; his only sales were to Series Noir/Gallimard in France. The foreign markets have a great role in the career and long-range visibility of some writers. But they can neither be managed nor predicted. I’ll cite myself as a paradigm.

How could — or, working in the present tense, how can — I have improved/improve my chances in the foreign markets? Get a good agent, get on the Internet, sure. But how about the work itself? Is there any quality to your work which you think has made you successful overseas? If there is, is such a quality transferable to the work of others?

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: “That’s all beyond me . . . I’m simple . . . Just send me the money.”

That’s defeatist talk, Barry. This field — and hopefully even our dialogues — can provide tools for making more money. Do you just want them to send it yesterday like the penny-a-word pulp writers of old — or can you bring yourself to wait a week or a month and cash a bigger check?

You know, one of the things we haven’t mentioned, here or in any prior dialogue, is that the word “No” is just about the sexiest word in the world of bargaining. Say it and mean it, and you’d be surprised at the nice things that can happen. For one thing, the offer you’ve rejected invariably remains on the table, just in case you change your mind. For another, you frequently receive an even better offer. You make it sound like every publisher’s offer is take it or leave it, and that’s just not the case — at least, not any longer — here or abroad. (Though of course you must be prepared to leave it; cave in even once, and you’re marked for life.)

(I have to add, based on my little tale of the Eastern bloc editors, sometimes you also have to know when not to say No, no matter how poor the offer.)

Now, as to your last question: I think that the well-structured plainly-told story probably translates better than the novel that aspires to be a 100,000-word prose poem, and of course if the translator makes you read better than your competition, you’re ahead of the game. But I would never suggest that anyone write in an unnatural style just to increase foreign advances.

There are many other strategies that have nothing to do with writing. Probably the most effective of them is to collect every review you can get your hands on. Yes, I know that syndicates often pick up a review, so that the same one may run in ten different newspapers. No problem. Send out copies of your books to fanzines — especially those that run regular reviews — and you should get another 20 to 50 reviews.

So what do you do with your 50 or 60 favorable reviews? Make copies and package them with each copy of your book that is submitted to a foreign editor. Maybe it won’t impress the Brits, who are very aware of our fannish community. Maybe it won’t help you beat out a Hugo nominee. But I am convinced that if an editor who isn’t too fluent in English — and that’s most foreign editors — gets two American SF books on his desk, and one of them comes with 60 good reviews and one comes with 3 or 4, it doesn’t matter that 45 of those good reviews were written for fanzines, and 12 of the others are identical except for where they appeared. He’s got 60 reviews of one and a small handful of the other, and it’s an easy call.

Writing for foreign fanzines — or giving them reprints of American fanzine articles — also doesn’t hurt; it gets your name known.

Going out of your way to meet foreign editors and fans at the major cons, especially Worldcon, isn’t a bad idea either, and for the same reason: the more exposure you can get, the better.

Another suggestion (and one your agent won’t like): wait until you have a few books in print before submitting overseas. Most of the countries you’re trying to sell want to know that you’re not a flash in the pan, that if they’re going to spend serious money buying and translating and promoting you, you’re going to stick around.

It’s a business. You’ve got to run it like one — and foreign revenues are an increasingly important part of it.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg‘s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the LOCUS Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with Mike Resnick, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest.

About Mike

According to Locus, I am the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. I have won 5 Hugos (from a record 37 nominations), a Nebula, and other major awards in the USA, France, Japan, Spain, Croatia, Catalonia, and Poland. I'm and author of 74 novels, over 260 stories, and 3 screenplays, and the editor of 42 anthologies. My work has been translated into 27 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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4 Responses to The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues #3: Foreign Sales

  1. Sean says:

    Hi Mike…just discovered you several years ago. Love love love your stuff. question. How many more of these are there? too cool.

    • Mike says:

      Curkywoof> If you’re speaking about a recent series, there are 5 Starship books; 3 Stalking books and 1 collection; 3 Weird Westerns in print and one coming in December. Among older series: 4 Galactic Midway books, 3 Galactic Comedy books, 4 Velvet Comet books, 4 Widowmaker books, 4 Lucifer Jones books (and a 5th coming, probably in 2014), and 3 Penelope Bailey books. If you mean how many books -total-, just check my bibliography here on the web page.

      — Mike

  2. Rollory says:

    Are you going to post the article that gave all those strong independent women authors the vapors? I’d rather like to see it.

    Also, I should probably get around to actually reading that copy of Santiago I’ve had sitting on my shelf for about 8 years.

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