Inside the Australian and New Zealand book industry

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The rights stuff 2017: Healthy year for Australian rights sales

For the 15th year in a row, Books+Publishing has surveyed Australian rights managers and literary agents to gauge the health of Australian rights trading and book exports. Andrew Wrathall and Andrea Hanke report on the survey’s findings.

Income up for the majority of rights managers

It’s been a healthy year for Australian rights sales, with the majority of rights managers and literary agents reporting an increase in income from overseas rights deals over the past 12 months, according to Books+Publishing’s annual survey, conducted in mid-2017.

Sixty percent of respondents reported an increase in their overseas rights income, up from 36% last year. Another 40% said their overseas rights income has stayed ‘about the same’, compared to 55% last year. None recorded a drop in income (9% last year).

Most rights managers and literary agents seemed reasonably satisfied with the international rights market for Australian books. Seventy-five percent said the market has ‘remained about the same’ or ‘improved a little’ or over the past 12 months, and 95% percent expect it to continue on this flat-to-slightly-up trajectory over the next 12 months.

Show me the money

Just over two thirds of publishers and literary agents (69%) generated under $100,000 in gross rights income over the past year (38% generated $0-50,000, 31% generated $50,000-100,000). This figure includes advances from new deals and royalty income from previous deals, but excludes co-edition income. Some respondents fared better: 6% generated $100,000-500,000, 19% generated $500,000-1,000,000 and 6% generated over $2,000,000.

The average highest deal for an Australian publisher or literary agent was $39,000, down somewhat from last year’s average highest deal of $51,400. The average smallest deal was up slightly from $715 to $800. The largest reported deal was $160,000 and the smallest reported deal was $120.

The average number of international rights deals executed by an Australian publisher or literary agent during the past 12 months was 48, down from last year’s average of 65.

Who is buying Australian books?

The US, UK, Germany and China are the four strongest markets for Australian rights sales, with the US strongest for both rights sales by income and by number of deals (last year it was second and third, respectively). The Netherlands was a notable new entry as the fifth strongest market for rights sales by income.

A total of 62% of all rights sales were recorded for markets in languages other than English, up from 56% last year.

When asked to nominate ‘up-and-coming’ markets, respondents selected China, Brazil, Turkey, Taiwan and Japan. Markets perceived to be in decline were Germany, the UK, Italy, France, Spain and China (which appeared on both the up-and-coming and declining markets lists).

Which categories are selling?

When it comes to international rights sales, the most in-demand categories in adult fiction were commercial fiction (58%), crime (42%), literary fiction (21%) and romance (11%). In adult nonfiction, it was narrative nonfiction and self-help (both 52%), popular science (38%), business (24%) and biographies and cooking (both 10%).

Middle-grade books was the most in-demand children’s category (52%), followed by picture books and junior fiction (both 43%) and YA (19%).

When asked to nominate particular trends in rights sales, the responses were mixed. One respondent noted that ‘literary and crime fiction seem to have the widest appeal’, particularly in North American and translation markets, while ‘commercial fiction will still sell in Germany and maybe Poland, but limited success elsewhere’. Another observed that there was ‘more interest in nonfiction categories’.

In children’s books, the trends were for picture books and junior fiction. ‘YA seems to be looked after reasonably well by “native” authors, especially in Europe and US—so our Australian  books are less in demand’ and ‘Asian countries do not do YA’, said one respondent. The trend for ‘diversity and authenticity’ in children’s literature was also mentioned.

Screen and audio rights

Sixty-five percent of publishers and literary agents have seen an increase in audio rights sales in the past 12 months, reflecting the current popularity for audiobooks. Thirty percent said audio rights sales had stayed the same and five percent said they had decreased.

TV and film rights seem to be holding steady, with 70% reporting the same level of TV rights sales over the past year (15% more, 15% less) and 55% reporting the same level of movie rights sales (25% more, 20% less).

When asked to estimate what percentage of film options are making it to production, the responses ranged from 5% to 60%. ‘It’s so hard to tell as they take so very long,’ said one respondent. ‘We’re seeing more options across the industry but are we seeing more book to film? I’d love to see some figures on this.’

Preferred ways to reach the world market

Attendance at the Frankfurt, Bologna and London book fairs were once again nominated as the top three conduits for selling rights. This was followed by formal sub-agency arrangements with overseas rights agents; attendance at either the Beijing International Book Fair or Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair; rights sales trips to specific markets; and the Australia Council’s VIP program.

When asked if there was more that the Australian government or publishing industry could do to encourage rights sales, most respondents called for ongoing or increasing support to travel to book fairs and other international markets, particularly for smaller publishers; as well as more collective stands at fairs such as London and Beijing, and industry delegations to the US. Ongoing support for the VIPs program was also mentioned.

One respondent called for financial support for WA publishers to attend interstate rights events, while others said that greater support was needed for nonfiction and educational publishers. ‘There is little to no support from the Australia Council for nonfiction publishers,’ said one respondent.

Translation grants for smaller territories were also suggested (‘The Australia Council has a minimum amount of $10,000 but most publishers don’t require this much towards translation costs’); as was greater promotion of authors who have secured overseas rights deals (‘It’s not enough to secure a deal on a small or average advance. We need to work closely with the foreign publishers to secure publicity and marketing to lead to increased sales and increased earnings for authors’).

Digital developments

On average, respondents ‘strongly agree’ that retaining territorial restrictions on ebooks is essential, and ‘disagree’ with the statement that ‘in time, all geographic restrictions for digital books will have to disappear.

Respondents were also more likely to agree that established contractual conventions have to be changed to match the new digital world; that authors are justified in expecting larger royalties on ebooks; and that dealing with digital rights is time-consuming for little demonstrable return.

The top markets for Australian rights sales 2016-2017

By income

  1. United States (2)
  2. United Kingdom (1)
  3. Germany (4)
  4. China (3)
  5. Netherlands (-)
  6. France (7)
  7. Korea (5)
  8. Brazil (-)
  9. Singapore (10)
  10. Italy (-)

(Last year’s ranking is in brackets.)

By number of deals

  1. United States (3)
  2. Germany (4)
  3. China (1)
  4. United Kingdom (2)
  5. Korea (5)
  6. France (8)
  7. Turkey (6)
  8. Brazil (7)
  9. Russia (10)
  10. Spain (-)

(Last year’s ranking is in brackets.)

Did you see more or less sales of these rights options in the past 12 months?

More Same Less
Television rights 15% 70% 15%
Movie rights 25% 55% 20%
Audio rights 65% 30% 5%


Category: Local news Rights and acquisitions