The Boy With The Unsold U.S. Rights: Ideas for Disrupting a Publishing Pain Point

On the face of things, I don’t have a huge amount in common with Stieg Larsson. For a start I’m not Swedish; and I’m not dead. Also, in the time it took you to read those last two sentences, Stieg Larsson sold more books than I did in the whole of last year.

And yet, if Larsson were still around, I feel sure there’s at least one area on which we’d agree (two if you count on the importance of training female Eritrean People’s Liberation Front guerrillas in the use of grenade launchers). And that’s the pain and frustration of trying to sell international rights to our books.

Back in 2008, Larsson was already a big success in his native Sweden. His debut novel, published in 2005, had already sold three million copies: a number made all the more impressive (or understandable, depending on your point of view) by the fact that he’d died the previous year. And yet despite this local acclaim – including several movie adaptations – the wider world remained blissfully unaware of his work.

Not that his publisher wasn’t doing its best to spread the word globally; it’s just that no-one outside the Nordic countries gave a damn: eight US publishers, and an equal number in the UK had turned down the opportunity to translate the work. In the end it was only after film companies started showing interest in a translation of the material that the English language rights were picked up by struggling London-based indie publisher Quercus for next to nothing.

[Disclosure: back in my days as a book publisher, we shared a lead investor and founding chairman with Quercus. He is no longer involved in either company. Also: he hates me.]

After a hasty editing job, Quercus went on to sell 2.3 million copies of the three books in the first 18 months,  saving the company from bankruptcy and turning mounting losses into profits of around $5 million in 2010. US rights were subsequently bought by Knopf who have since sold over 14 million copies, including a record number of electronic copies (Larsson was the first author to achieve over one million Kindle sales).

And yet all that success makes it all the more remarkable how close Larsson’s work came to never being published in the UK or the US (and missing out on maybe 20 million sales, and counting). Sixteen is a lot of publishers to be rejected by, and even Quercus’ founder recently admitted they probably wouldn’t have bothered buying the rights had Larsson been alive. Such is the crapshoot of international rights.

Again, I am no Stieg Larsson – but I can certainly grok how narrowly he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat (his untimely death notwithstanding). Later this year, readers in the UK, Australia, Hong Kong and almost any other country on the planet will be able to buy my new book: The Upgrade. Readers in the US: not so much.

Like Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, by my reckoning The Upgrade has been turned down by eight publishers in the U.S. Larsson’s publisher was warned by one British bookseller that “people don’t buy books by authors with funny names”; similarly I’ve grown accustomed to hearing the refrain from New York: “it’s a little too British for American readers”.

Back in 2009, I shared similar frustrations about my previous book; how despite having decent UK and International sales and a growing potential readership in the US, I’d failed dismally to find a US publisher. In the end I gave away the US edition of the book here on TechCrunch. Since then over 100,000 people have read or downloaded that edition it in its various forms.

I’ll be honest, I was expecting a slightly easier ride this time. Unlike its London-centric predecessor, the new book is basically a love letter to American women America with over half of it set in this country, across six states. Given all that, surely someone would pick up the US rights this time? But no. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, one failed attempt to get published in the US may be regarded as a misfortune, two looks like carelessness. Maybe it’s just a crappy book.

So, what to do? Satisfy myself with the book being available everywhere except the country where I live? Perhaps. Wait patiently for an American equivalent of Quercus to come along and scoop up the rights for a pittance? Not going to happen; at least not while I remain alive.

No, surely there must be some clever technological solution to the problem? After all, technology is disrupting EVERYTHING, right?

Digital self-publishing seems an obvious avenue, especially with self-published authors like J. A. Konrath claiming five-figure monthly revenues from Kindle and iPad sales alone. I could even take a leaf – no pun intended – out of Cory Doctorow’s book and self-publish in print, particularly the kind of high-value special editions which Doctorow says provide the bulk of his profits. And yet, as I’ve written before, self publishing holds no real appeal for me: I love having a publisher, I love having an editor and I love having a publicist and marketing department working on my behalf (Quercus spent hundreds of thousands of dollars kick-starting sales of the Millennium Trilogy, including giving away hundreds of copies to London commuters to build word of mouth.) Cory Doctorow’s experiment in self-publishing has managed to produce a book that is stunningly beautiful, and has been hailed for various marketing innovations that put traditional publishers to shame. But Doctorow admits that the process has been exhausting, to the point where his health is suffering. I get a migraine just trying to complete a manuscript, without having to consider paper stock and cover art.

Similarly, giving away the book for free worked last time, but it seriously strained my relationship with my publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson. It also doubtlessly dented UK and International sales, which is unfair given the financial commitment W&N has made in those areas.

So what options does that leave? After several weeks kicking the problem around in my head – oscillating between frustration and determination – I’ve alighted on two possible disruptive solutions. As far as I can tell, neither of them already exists.

Disruptive solution number one: An online marketplace for the disposal of unsold international rights.

The truth is I’d gladly give my US rights away for free in return for a decent royalty upside and a promise of a reasonable marketing/promotional spend – but  there’s currently no place for me to advertise that fact. A platform for unsold rights – a kind of eBay for intellectual property – would solve that problem at a stroke, for me and for countless thousand other authors in my position. Authors or agents could pay a small fee to post a synopsis of their book, along with details of who has already bought the rights to other territories (a useful quality filter for publishers) and a summary of what price/guarantees they’d like in return for handing them over. Publishers looking for the next Steig Larsson could quickly scan the titles available for their territory, then snap them up for a pittance and the promise of a generous upside. Perhaps publishers could even pay a premium to view new titles before anyone else. In addition to territorial rights, the service could easily be expanded to sell rights according to media: ebook rights, print rights, even film or television rights. Given how many first time authors are choosing the self-publish electronically, the service could help successful ebook authors find print publishers for their work, and vice versa.

Disruptive solution number two: A traditional publishing / Kickstarter hybrid

Another solution would be for an established publisher to create a new hybrid imprint, aimed at giving established authors who remain unpublished in a particular market an alternative to self-publishing. What I have in mind is a blend of traditional publishing and Kickstarter. The publisher would acquire the ebook rights to a title for free, in exchange for a promise to publish and promote the book on the Kindle and iPad. Furthermore they would give a conditional commitment to publish a print edition of the title, based on a certain number of readers sign up in advance to purchase it. Again, I would gladly hand over the rights to my book for free knowing at least it would be professionally published and promoted as an ebook in the US. I would then move heaven and earth to encourage my various US-centric readerships (here on TechCrunch, on my blog, and in other publications) to commit to ordering an advance copy of a print edition. Once, say, 2000 people had made that commitment, the publisher would be obliged to print and distribute it, at very little risk to their bottom line. They would also commit to selling the print edition through Amazon and, if sales reach a certain point, through bricks and mortar book stores.

So there you go. If you’re a publishing entrepreneur and you see any potential in either of those ideas, feel free to run with them – you have my eager blessing. Just promise that if you build the rights selling platform you’ll let me know so I can put my own book on there. And if you’re a US publisher who thinks the second idea seems appealing then give me a call and… well… I’d be happy to recommend a brilliant forthcoming title with available US rights which could help you prove the concept.

I warn you though, apart from all the American stuff, it’s very British.