Foreign Rights and Reader Analytics

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Audience + InsightNext week the London Book Fair will take place at Olympia in Kensington. This is one of the preeminent events for trading foreign rights in literary works, and I will therefore take the opportunity to discuss foreign rights as it relates to reader analytics this week.

Lets have a look at Germany to explore further:

Jellybooks has recently conducted several reader analytics pilots in Germany, as described last week by Börsenblatt in “The (Un)known Reader” (“Der (Un)bekannte Leser”), and earlier by Buchreport in “The Observing Coreader” (“Der beobachtende Mitleser”).

More than €9.3 billion worth of books are sold in Germany every year, which makes Germany the world’s third largest publishing market after the United States and China, according to the International Publishers Association, which has some pretty cool statistics on global book sales.

What makes Germany unique, though, is that 40 percent of trade sales are translations from foreign languages (in the US, the percentage is in the low single digits). A large amount of the sums German publishers pay in book advances is to foreign rights holders mainly in the UK and the US, but also in Italy, France, Scandinavia and elsewhere.

When conducting reader analytics pilots with German publishers, we were asked multiple times if it were possible to obtain reading analytics data before a publisher acquired the rights and committed to a potentially large advance. The logic goes: it would significantly reduce risk if the acquiring publishers did not just have Nielsen sales data, but also data on reader engagement. When I was first asked, this generated quite a startled look on my side (cue animated gif with eyes rolling), but as usual, it got me thinking.

First of all, leading British and American literary agents and publishers might not have much incentive to commission the collection of such data and provide it to acquirers. They have a very successful rights trading business already. They also have a motive to maximize the advance and shift as much risk onto the acquirer as possible.

These agents potentially also know far more about the work they are selling than the acquirer does, which economist George Ackerlof famously described in his 1970 paper, “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism” (for which he won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2001). Lemon, in this context, of course does not refer to citrus fruit, but to the American slang term for a car that is found to be defective only after one has bought it.

Selling foreign rights to distribute a particular book title is similar. The market is asymmetric: the buyer might be stuck with a lemon and has no recourse to the seller. Providing more information is not necessarily in the seller’s interest, if that might mean the advance is reduced.

I will advance three reasons, however, why reader analytics might be in the seller’s, as well as the buyer’s interest, or at least under certain circumstances:

Firstly, buyers become cautious because they know they are at an information disadvantage: “caveat emptor” (“buyer beware”). As a result, far fewer foreign rights get acquired and books translated. This phenomenon has been observed and commented on many times before. Thus, commissioning reading analytics to show how strongly a book appeals to audiences might be a unique selling point (USP) for the rights holder in stimulating more interest for a book at events like book fairs and other forums where rights are traded. Removing information asymmetry and creating more trust in markets generally creates more liquid markets with more transactions happening.

The other way this is happening is that large publishing conglomerates, like HarperCollins, are doing the translations themselves, because they can remove the information asymmetry in house. Scandinavian and German publishers also are increasingly retaining English rights and launching English language ebooks globally on Kindle, iTunes and Kobo.

“But audiences are different,” I hear you say. The reading analytics for a Spanish audience might not translate to an audience in Germany, Italy or Canada, you argue. That may be true in some (rare?) cases, but as Netflix noted in a recent Wired article, geography is rarely a good predictor of what kind of movie a viewer is interested in. Spotify has found the same for music. Games are inherently global entertainment properties, too. And we at Jellybooks think the same is true for books.

Communities of interest are global. Audience niches in Barcelona, Paris, Berlin and Chicago are more alike than they are different. People have unique tastes, but their uniqueness is rarely defined by borders. For example, more anime is viewed on Netflix outside Japan than in Japan.

However, to prove that reading analytics transcends borders, more evidence is needed, and we at Jellybooks have therefore applied to the European Union for a grant to fund “Project Honeydew” under the multi-billion Horizon 2020 program. As part of “Project Honeydew,” we intend to conduct reader analytics pilots in Spain, France, Italy, Benelux, Scandinavia and the “new” European states with a specific view to testing original and translation in multiple markets to establish evidence and rules that audiences are not national, or if they are, under what circumstances and which genres they are shaped by local flavors.

(If you are an agent or publisher from these countries who is interested in participating in “Project Honeydew,” please email us at info@Jellybooks.com with a reference to “Project Honeydew” in the subject line.)

Secondly, sellers might be interested in reader analytics to avoid the book languishing in a foreign market. Hugh Howey, forgive me, but I will pick out your Wool omnibus edition as my example. It has been a blockbuster worldwide, most notably here in the UK under the stewardship of Penguin Random House UK, but in Germany its numbers have been poor (as anybody who looks up Nielsen sales numbers will notice). Piper, Howey’s publisher in Germany, has a superb sci-fi and fantasy department with some really, really switched on editors, but clearly something went wrong with the launch of Wool a few years ago.

Was it a poor translation? (It happens.) Was it overshadowed by another book? Was it marketed incorrectly? Who knows? This is not a blame game. Launching a new author and a new book is a matter of skill and finesse, but it also requires a good portion of luck. I personally think that Wool could sell a million copies in Germany, and a test reading experiment among Germans could potentially prove that the book resonates with Teutonic audiences.

Last week I showed in “It’s the Cover, Stupid!” how incorrect positioning or cover design can let a book down. Wool is not your average sci-fi fare, and a traditional German sci-fi audience might have rejected it for that reason. Wool is really a book about how knowledge is used to control society, and how access to knowledge is rationed and distorted, and that is extremely topical to a German audience, not least since Edward Snowden’s revelations that the NSA spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the recent #PanamaPapers revelations.

I would therefore encourage Piper to do a reader analytics experiment with Wool (Piper has done reading analytics experiments with us at Jellybooks, though contrary to common perception, they were NOT the first publisher to work with us in Germany, where we currently work with five large publishers). I bet that a young female audience in Germany that doesn’t normally read scifi might embrace the book if translated and positioned well and with the right cover, which is something Jellybooks can test for. It’s not a scifi novel in the conventional sense at all and deserves a second chance in Germany.

I fear, though, that Piper’s new publisher might dismiss this idea out of hand. Last month, Felicitas von Lovenberg took over as the new publisher at Piper. She was previously a literary critic at Germany’s daily newspaper “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (FAZ for short), a paper that holds a similar position in Germany’s literary circles as the New York Times does in the US. In other words, von Lovenberg is one of the high priestesses of the German literary world and comes from the traditional mold of literary critics. I and many others hope she will embrace publishing’s digital future. I am not confident, but I am keeping my fingers crossed that she might yet morph into the Queen of Data. Hope springs eternal.

So these were my three arguments why reading analytics could impact foreign rights. It is in the author’s and agent’s interest to make sure the book is optimally positioned and marketed in every market across the world. Authors, agents and publishers will want to create international interest in those titles that might otherwise get overlooked, and buyers are interested because it can reduce the risk of the upfront investment they are making. Win, win, win, me thinks, but nothing in publishing is ever as logical as it looks on paper.

More on the topic of foreign rights and reader analytics will be presented at Publishing Perspectives Conversations at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2016. Sadly, no presentation on reader analytics has been scheduled for the London Book Fair, but we are around, meeting with Jellybooks friends past, present and future during Quantum and the London Book Fair.


There will be no post for the data column next week while the London Book Fair takes place, but come back in two weeks for “Reader Analytics is a Marketing Tool, Not a Silver Bullet”, which will be followed by a mini-series on how publishers use “legacy” data such as data on sales, returns, earn-outs, email open and click rates, pricing experiments and much more to become data-smart publishers and how these tools could be improved further.

Oh and I apologise that we have no solution yet for authors at this moment. If you are a traditionally published author you might want to nudge your publishers to consider the program, but if you are self-published or hybrid-published author, we will have to wait a little bit. We are mulling several ideas for how to work with self-published authors and are working with Orna Ross and the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLI) on finding a proposition that caters to individual authors and is economically viable for Jellybooks. Our Jellybooks VIP program remains suspended and we regret that no VIP invitations are being extended to authors and indie publishers any longer. It was a program that we operated between December 2013 and late 2015 and that was part of our discovery program at www.jellybooks.com/discover, which is currently operated “as is”, but for which we have big plans in 2017.


Earlier posts in the data-smart publishing series:
“The Internet of Bookish Things”
“Reading Fast and Slow – Observing Book Readers in Their Natural Habitat”
“Start Strong or Lose Your Readers”
“What Books Have the X-Factor? Measuring a Book’s Net Promoter Score”
“Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, But What About Readers?”
“How Does Age Affect Reading?”
“8 Reasons Why People Buy Books”
“Data Vs. Instinct – The Publisher’s Dilemma”
“It’s the Cover, Stupid! Why Publishers Should A/B Test Book Covers”


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One thought on “Foreign Rights and Reader Analytics

  1. Palessa

    When it comes to the EU, it’s great to have this kind of data because I would have thought that someone like Hugh Howey would have been excellent in Germany. I wonder what his reception would be like in France or even Spain. What makes Spanish and French readers go for it? Are they more cover sensitive than others… Look forward to learning more

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