The Finkler Answer

As many of you know, I made a move from academic to trade publishing over the summer. The transition has been fascinating, and I think the last 3 months have been the most exciting in my career as my role has shifted from strategic licensing at OUP to overseeing all sales and marketing at Bloomsbury.  In my new job I have already participated in nearly every imaginable trade business scenario: retailer terms negotiations, international sales & distribution deals, book launches, author tours, agent negotiations, and even a Man Booker winner.

Perhaps most interesting about my new role is that I am one of the few people in my industry who runs sales and marketing operations on both sides of the Atlantic. Seeing how London differs from New York in trade is fascinating, but what has struck me most is the prevailing zeitgeist regarding world English rights.  The proposition that one publisher should NEVER be sold world English rights for a work seems to have become the default position, especially by UK based agents.

This default position is a curious one; it can create the short-term benefit of increased cash up front (it doesn’t necessarily mean that, but I agree it can). However, the downside, as seen from my eyes, is far too great – especially for a new author who needs careful brand and marketing development. A global publishing plan cannot only build an author more effectively, but also make it easier for the agent and author to work with an editor and sales/marketing team. No multiple publishers and sub-agents thinking about their self-centered needs – one company to manage, one relationship to build, one place to go when things go right (or wrong).

The semiotics of a single cover design uncovers an imprinting effect that carries over from market to market

Yet this logic seems to be lost on those who are selling us books. To wit, Helen Gamons-Williams is an editor at Bloomsbury who has a wonderful ability to bring a book to life when describing it at our editorial pitch meetings.  A couple of weeks ago she pitched a novel that everyone in the room immediately wanted to read. It was a unique tale that blended history with a very surprise ending that, if described any further, would ruin this potentially incredible new novel.

Helen made a preemptive offer for world English and German rights. As we have publishing companies in London, New York, Sydney, and Berlin, we can launch titles on a worldwide basis, in English and German, and create a cohesive and coherent marketing/sales/branding effort.  Before the offer was put in, Helen knew the agent had an offer for the UK, but she also knew he thought very highly of Bloomsbury and was therefore confident going in with a large offer for world English rights.  Our plan would be to roll out this title in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and Germany with one look, one cover design, one title (except in German!), and one global marketing campaign.

The fact that the book had a plot device – driven twist at the end meant that we would want to publish and promote this title in a very calculated and clever way in order to pique the interest of all markets simultaneously – while not allowing the plot twist to become public fodder on the internet months before the book publishes in all of the markets.

This was a hugely important point in our thinking for this title and for our publishing program worldwide. In a global marketplace where customers can order books online in Australia from the US or UK and pay no freight, it is incredibly important to market a title coherently and wisely with a single brand and publish everywhere at the same time (or as close to it as is reasonable or possible given the differences in language).

This is how we published, with incredible success, Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. Jacobson’s Man Booker – winning novel was working well for Bloomsbury before the award was given because we had been able to buy world English rights, we were able to create one cover design, we had one title, and we had been able to sell one ebook across all markets.

In fact, Amazon had given us a promotional banner and placement on the Kindle store precisely because we had one cover and one title. Amazon customers anywhere could buy the book without insipid territorial limitations in rights, look, and feel. As Howard’s face and book were plastered across television, magazines, and newspapers across the world, one single brand, one single look, one single publisher was conveyed to an eager audience.

We are in a globalized world that offers us the opportunity to do actual marketing of titles and to create worldwide and globally impactful sales plans. All we need are the rights to do so.

The result was amazing as The Finkler Question hit; #1 on the UK Kindle store, #2 on Amazon.co.uk for the UK print version, #7 on the US Kindle store, and #3 on the Amazon.com for the US print version. We have even cracked the NY Times best seller list, with Finkler jumping to #14 this past Sunday.

Yes, these figures are a direct result of winning the Man Booker, but I would argue that the Man Booker prize is most influential in the UK. Furthermore, Howard Jacobson is not a household name in the US and Finkler is set in London, not in NY. These factors make me believe we are looking at something else that is helping drive our US success.  I believe that the single coherent brand and look/cover has helped propel Jacobson’s work into the limelight in a way that none of his other books to date have managed to do. Yes, none won the Man Booker (he was nominated in the past), but none published under a single global marketing and sales strategy.

The semiotics of a single cover design uncovers an imprinting effect that carries over from market to market.  Howard and the jacket in the UK on the cover of a US newspaper means that the book itself was a symbol of the book – which in turn helped people “see” it when they went to the store or saw it online. The impact factor of having a single look and feel and single marketing plan that is customized for local markets brings marketing back to trade books. Piling books high in stores not only doesn’t cut it anymore as the only way to truly market a book; it simply doesn’t happen enough to rely on.

So here we are on the precipice of a new way of thinking about marketing and trade books. We are in a globalized world that offers us the opportunity to do actual marketing of titles and to create worldwide and globally impactful sales plans. All we need are the rights to do so.

Which brings us back to Helen and her quest to sign this novel by a first-time author. We made our offer and even raised it a couple of times to ensure we were competitive – but without hesitation, we insisted on world English rights.  Over and over the question came back – would we consider UK and commonwealth only? Helen bravely towed the line – it must be incredibly hard to fall in love with a book, want to sign it badly, have the money to do so, but know that strategically you must get the whole baby, not just Solomon’s half-the-child solution.

Helen, like the true mother in the Old Testament tale, kept to her line knowing that publishing this work in pieces would weaken it and the potential of this new author. In the end, the agent signed the book in the UK only with another publisher.  I assume they are working on selling this in America, as well as Canada and Australia (assuming they didn’t sell commonwealth rights).

The book is fantastic and the rights will be sold in these markets. The problem will come when the book publishes and this first-time author finds himself at the mercy of 3 or 4 different marketing plans, cover designs, publishing cycles, release dates, and discordant marketing iconography. Let’s just hope for his sake some consistency and coherence prevails and he builds a career deserving of his writing.

For us, we will keep pushing our agenda of building our authors and lists on a worldwide basis and hope the industry catches up soon.

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6 Replies to “The Finkler Answer”

  1. Dear Evan (if I may),

    This is all fascinating for me — in general as one of those on whom this “logic” is lost, and in particular as the agent that the piece refers to.

    It’s tempting to post here a less partisan and more accurate version of certain events than your account relates, but I believe it would be wrong to do so. Wrong because it would be unfair to my client the author of this wonderful novel, wrong because it would be unfair to the excellent and deeply committed publishers who were successful in acquiring the book with a vision, strategy, passion and logic of their own. But mostly just wrong because it would drive a bus through the niceties of (well, previously at least) generally understood professional confidentiality in our business — in a way that I’m afraid your piece does.

    Best wishes,

    Jim

  2. Hi, Evan: I’m a literary agent who handles British Commonwealth rights to our children’s list here at Curtis Brown (NY). I’m going to be talking about books for kids now since that’s what I handle primarily, but I think a lot of my points apply to the adult market as well. I’m also going to be repeating a lot of what Mark said, but less succinctly, I’m afraid.

    I have sold Commonwealth rights to books; North American rights (I have my own list of clients as well); World English rights; and in the past year I’ve done a half dozen Australia/New Zealand deals. That was a relatively new thing for me, but I’m very glad I’ve taken that step to separate out those rights from general British Commonwealth when possible. That’s because the ANZ market is more similar to the US than the UK market is to the US. Fiction for 12 and up took off sooner and has been a lot bigger in ANZ than in the UK (though that is changing). Another reason I started separating our these rights is because I saw how much money was to be made in Australian sales–and how little our clients would be making because of low export royalties.

    I’ve also experienced what it’s like to sell a book to a publisher in one country and then see it published by their partner in the other, if the partner did not buy the rights but either took copies or decided to partner with them. I can tell you–it rarely works out well for the author in the secondary country, unless that other division has put money on the table.

    I’d consider doing a World English deal with a publisher, and maybe even sell them a few foreign languages if they had partners or divisions in those countries, as long as my client could count on the following:

    Full, fair royalties for that country. No small percentage of net sales–I want list price based royalties. I might even want separate accounting by country–so are you going to tell me how much of the advance you a portioning to which country? I know that the royalties will be lower for translation sales. That’s fine–I just want what my brilliant colleague here Dave Barbor would get me if he sold the book via our fantastic subagents in that particular country.

    An enthusiastic editor who did not have this title foisted upon her by bosses or colleagues. An enthusiastic editor who fell in love with this book on her own and decided she had to have it. I also want a marketing team that is likewise excited of their own accord.

    Speaking of that editor–hopefully, I will also get an editor for my client who will know the exact right translator, should this be in a foreign language. The translator for THE FINKLER QUESTION will not be the right one for a young adult novel. An editor will know the difference. An actual editor, in an actual office, in that country. Not just the, say, German equivalent of your distributors and sales force at Penguin Canada.

    And finally, I’d like to make sure we get a cover that works for that market. A worldwide cover for THE FINKLER QUESTION obviously worked for that book. But it’s not going to work for every market. I’m not even asking for my client to have cover approval–I want the editor who fell in love with this book in that country to figure out the cover.

    Agents reading this are probably laughing, as they know no publisher would let me have contract provisions regarding these points, should I sell Commonwealth or translation rights to a publisher instead of handling them myself.

    So you see my dilemma. What worked for THE FINKLER QUESTION is not going to happen as much as we would all like. My job is to find the right homes for my clients, both in the US and abroad–and to partner with subagents in other countries to find them homes there, as well. I do not believe that the clients of mine who have had translation sales have lost out on some kind of opportunity. Rather, they have found the exact right homes in those countries, thanks to the fact that we kept the translation and Commonwealth rights.

    Evan Reply:

    Ginger, thanks for this smart and professional comment. I will agree that there are always exceptions to the rules and having two strategies is sometime better than one. But to reverse your argument on itself – what worked for The Finkler Question can and SHOULD work for most of what is published. If most of what is published in trade is, by all empirical evidence, completely unsuccessful – meaning about 80% of trade books never earn out the initial advance – then what you describe above is at BEST working for only 20% of trade books published.

    I stand by the notion that we are dividing and diluting the potency of what we do as an industry by talking ourselves into believing we have a sustainable and workable model. We dont. One day the bottom will fall out and all we will have is divergent strategies and covers that supposedly work only in local markets.

    Thanks!

  3. Evan, I notice you mentioned you launched Jacobson in Canada. I was unaware that you had an office in Canada. What did you do in that market? Anything? What about Australia? I am asking because — and I am being 100% sincere — the commonwealth is a big place and you are in trouble the moment you start-off posting about English world rights with a discussion of the US/UK split that implicitly excludes the rest of the world.

    Acquiring global rights is fine as long as retail channels and marketing can be executed locally. But retailers aren’t set up to sell globally. And marketing these days involves more “caretaking” a title and “shepherding” it through the vagaries of the market in question than it does promotion. You need local people to deal with local problems.

    We need a (more) frictionless world market before signing world rights truly makes sense.

    If you did have a campaign for Jacobson in Canada, I would be interested in reading a post about how that went and how you made the synergies work.

    Best regards,
    ~mb

    Evan Reply:

    Mark:

    First very good and important points all.

    For starters, we do publish in Canada and Australia. Publishing doesn’t necessarily require an office, it requires a commitment to the market either directly or in conjunction with an appropriately positioned partner. In Canada we are deeply partnered with Penguin Canada for all print book sales (ebooks we deal directly in all markets). In Australia we currently partner with Allen and Unwind – which is a longstanding and ever evolving partnership. In fact, we are preparing to open our Sydney office as I type… our MD has begun hiring and is signing a lease this week.

    As a publisher with its original and deep roots in the UK, we understand the Commonwealth is far greater than just the UK. However, books originated in UK are more often than not sold with commonwealth rights. This is a historical fact and has no bearing on the point I was trying to make. The separation of US and UK rights was in fact an argument about the separation of US and Commonwealth rights.

    We are set up to exploit our own ability, and the ability of our partners, to execute a global sales and marketing campaign. To wit, our gross sales into Canada of The Finkler Question are running about 25% of US gross sales. Considering that we have the #14 NY Times bestseller and Canada being just above 10% of the base population, I think our strategy with Penguin is doing gangbusters.

    Clearly we are not feeling the friction you think exists.

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