Best Practices in Global Book Sales
When the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” series decided to go global with its newest edition, “The Remarkable … Revealed,” the company took a chance by tweaking the typical foreign publishing model. Rather than licensing full publishing rights, as many publishers do, Ripley chose to handle printing and work directly with foreign distributors.
“We’re finding that, with licensing, [foreign publishers] don’t [always] have the commitment we do,” says Norm Deska, executive vice president of intellectual property, Ripley Entertainment. “We’re looking to better establish our brand with a high-quality annual book, and the only way to do that was to do it ourselves.”
Ripley, whose books––based on museum exhibits––feature flashy graphics and complex cover images, works with a single Chinese printer for nearly all worldwide editions, an arrangement worked out in partnership with Spokane, Wash.-based international sales and distribution firm Mint Publishers Group.
“We put through one print run, and we get the benefit of scale, and the publisher and distributor in other countries get the benefit of that scale in terms of the price we charge them,” explains Morty Mint, president and CEO, Mint Publishers Group.
At the same time, Mint adds, Ripley controls its content and brand, which is important to a company looking to establish and increase its profile beyond the United States.
Despite such advantages, this approach is not common in publishing, given the logistical hurdles of managing multiple language editions and complex distribution arrangements.
“[As a foreign publisher, you typically] receive the rights and [handle printing and distribution],” says Jorge Pinto, publisher of international publishing house Jorge Pinto Books Inc., of the most common types of foreign publishing deals. “Some have clauses where [the foreign publisher] sends the [translated] manuscript back to the [U.S] publisher, but usually [the foreign publisher] handles everything, and gives the [U.S.] publisher and writer a copyright fee. It’s a good source of income for [the U.S. publisher] and for the writer.”
Jorge Pinto Books has handled the international publication of many successful titles (including, recently, Alan Greenspan’s memoirs, “The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World”), as well as doing “reverse translation” of art and architecture books originally published in Spanish for the American market.
Recognizing International Potential
When it comes to managing publishing projects, however, Pinto––also a professor of international business at Pace University in New York––appreciates the advantages of being able to handle translation, distribution and marketing in-house. Yet publishers rarely approach him, and he has to scour catalogs, book stores, trade shows and book reviews to discover new releases that are worth translating.
Except for the big best sellers (such as Alan Greenspan’s book), “publishing houses often do not have a very good process” for determining which books might do well in foreign markets, Pinto says.
“They are missing a huge market,” he continues, especially when it comes to niche titles. “It’s worth their while to go into as many languages as possible, even if for just a few thousand copies,” he says, because of the opportunity for increased exposure and brand expansion.
Pinto’s company plans a multinational publishing strategy from the time negotiations begin with authors. In his niche market, being in tune with developments in the worlds of art, science and design allows for quick shifts in marketing to anticipate a potential sudden jump in sales, such as when an author is mentioned in connection with the annual announcement of Nobel prizes or if a book is reviewed in The New York Times.
“What a reviewer says in New York may have an impact in Beijing. Book reviews read around the world have a spillover effect,” he notes. “From a marketing standpoint, we’re always ready to respond.”
Translated Editions Made Simple
For Deska, outsourcing translation work was a logistical challenge, but the process was made easier by smart integration with manufacturing. Different versions of text were “dropped into” black-and-white sections of the book, while color pages (usually featuring images/illustrations) were unchanged, allowing editions in several languages to be done on a single print run.
“The international [Ripley’s] books are the same book translated, so even though international publishers are involved [with book distribution and sales in their locales], the basis of control is all there,” Deska notes.
Even in cases where publishing rights for the most recent edition were sold outright, Ripley oversaw the production of a complex lenticular image gracing the front cover.
“We want the product and the brand to look a certain way, to be printed a certain way,” Mint stresses. “We don’t want [the lenticular image] printed by any old printer … so we look after the printing of that ourselves. We have our trademark colors.”
For publishers looking to maintain some control over the book production process, distribution in foreign countries becomes a separate challenge.
“There are practical, local realities that need to be considered,” says Seth Gershel, a book industry consultant and former executive at Simon & Schuster. “A local publisher knows the local culture and distribution landscape a whole lot better than does a publisher coming from outside of the country. Publishing is a whole lot more than simply printing and shipping. Sometimes regional control can be exerted, but even in the case of Canada, it is my opinion that a local Canadian publisher is much better equipped to … distribute and publicize than is even the largest publisher if based in the United States.
“Best case has the agent going directly to get publishing deals in each of the areas desired for publication,” he continues, “but this requires an agent with the worldwide experience and contacts that few, if any, of them possess.”
In Great Britain, Ripley sold the distribution rights to Random House UK, which handled sales and marketing efforts and, according to Mint, did well on the profits, made possible by Ripley’s maintenance of low printing costs.
“There’s no overhead. They [the foreign publisher] don’t have to do any editorial work,” he says. “The sales reps are already hired and working full-time selling existing books, so there’s no additional work for them. They’re just pulling another book out of their bag.”
By lowering costs for distributors in smaller countries like Croatia and Israel, keeping some control can actually open up new markets, Mint says. More book-buying per capita and different retail practices make these markets more attractive than many publishers realize.
“Discounting is a bigger part of publishing life in the English-speaking world than elsewhere,” he says. “Nobody monkeys around with discounting [in non-English speaking countries], and people are still buying large numbers of books.”
Some companies practice what might be called a hybrid process—retaining rights for a certain period of time before licensing out reprint rights. This method is especially common in the scientific, technical and medical (STM) segment, where translation can be a time- and labor-consuming task, and most readers expect to encounter books and journals in English.
“We try our best to disseminate our content in the original version, in books and journals, but also [through] the licensing business,” says Rainer Justke, director of relationship management and head of rights and licensing at Springer Science+Business Media.
A two-year waiting period for reprint rights ensures the company can sell the original edition internationally, a practice followed by many STM publishers, Justke says. Springer disseminates its original editions with the support of local sales forces in Hong Kong, Tokyo, New Delhi and Seoul.
The sales and distribution process is simpler than for a mass-appeal book like Ripley’s “The Remarkable … Revealed” because there are a fixed number of countries in which Springer can expect strong STM demand. Still, Justke says there are no plans for the company to abandon its licensing model.
“It helps a lot to avoid copyright infringement,” Justke says. “If you are strongly working in Asian countries such as India and China, it is our experience that if you have a reliable license partner there, then the content is not disseminated to others, because they protect what they own.
“Of course we have to trust that the information given is correct,” Justke points out, “but this can happen also in Western countries.”
The main challenge moving forward, Mint agrees, is ensuring accurate tracking and reporting of sales so that publishers—whether receiving royalties from a licensee or a percentage of profits––get paid what they are owed. While acknowledging copyright challenges in countries such as Russia and Korea, he says that legal conventions are being increasingly adhered to, and that, by striking distribution deals, Ripley achieves the same advantage in terms of copyright protection without loss of brand control.
Jorge Pinto Books has had to master the fine art of gauging whether a piracy problem calls for deep discounting in order to undercut illegal trade, or accepting a percentage of loss and hoping sales are sufficiently high—a calculus determined by the book and region. For most U.S.-based companies, the situation calls for utilizing foreign publishers who know their market and have a vested interest in protecting their intellectual property.
Whether a publisher licenses out rights or controls parts of the process themselves, “it comes down to getting the right players,” Deska stresses. And it’s hard to argue with success––the novice publisher has, up to this point, moved about 700,000 copies of the first installment of “The Remarkable … Revealed.”
“It was a little scary for someone just starting out,” Deska recounts, “but it sold out.”