How publishers can sell English language translation rights

Today we welcome children’s book editor and publishing consultant Lisa Davis to offer step-by-step advice to publishers wishing to sell English-language translation rights…

By Lisa Davis

An English-language translation of a book is like a holy grail for publishers around the world. It’s difficult to get, but once you do, it can open up translations into other languages. But how do you get your books considered by English-language publishers who are far more interested in selling their books to you rather than buying yours?

Books translated through the In Other Words project

I could talk about the lack of children’s books translated into English for days, but that isn’t going to help anyone. What we really have to look at is why so few books are translated into English in the first place. There’s the monolingualism of many English-language publishers, meaning they can’t consider books they can’t read. And there’s the commercial side of things, where they often feel they won’t be able to make enough money from a translated book for a variety of reasons.

So as someone trying to sell a book to an English-language publisher, you will need to do more work to convince them to buy translation rights. Let’s go step-by-step at how you can succeed in pitching a book.

  1. Research the publishing market. You want to make sure you’re sending the right books to the right publishers. For instance, there’s no point in trying to sell a high fantasy novel to a publisher that focuses on historical mystery.

    Treat each editor and each publisher as a different client with different needs, and only show them a small sample of your books that are most suited to their list. The more you get to know a publisher and editor, the more you’ll know which books they want.

    Start with the publishers you regularly buy rights from. Browse catalogs of other publishers, too. See who regularly attends book fairs and try to meet with someone to see what type of books they’re looking for.
  2. Write a strong pitch letter. This is the email or letter where you’re selling the book to the editor. It shouldn’t be too long, but should cover all important points for your sales pitch. First, give an introduction to the book’s plot, but don’t give away too much. The goal is to make the editor interested in reading the book.

    Once they are interested, the editor needs to make sure the book can be a success. So also include details of the book’s success in your home country or other countries where it’s been published, as well as information about the author. Make sure you put this into context for someone not familiar with your market. For instance, selling 3,000 copies a year might be a huge success in some countries, but not in others. And not everyone will know which literature prizes are important to each country, so tell them if it’s the top children’s book prize. 

    If the book hasn’t been published yet, maybe there’s another reason why it would be interesting to the publisher. Does the author have a previous success? Does this new book fit a current trend? Does it fill a gap in that country’s market? If you know publishers are looking for books about a certain topic and you have a book like that, use it to your advantage.
  3. Prepare a sample translation. As mentioned, many editors won’t speak other languages. Even if they do, it might not be the language you publish. So it’s likely you will need a sample translation for the editor to consider the book. You don’t need to translate the whole book, but at least the first three chapters of prose fiction, or up to 10,000 words, to give editors a sense of the writing.

    Along with the sample translation, you need a synopsis. This is a summary of the entire plot – all the key points from the beginning to the end – so that any editor who likes the sample translation will know where the story goes from there.

    Please note that a translation should ideally be translated into English by a native English speaker who is a professional translator, or if you have sourced your own translation, you should have a native English-speaking editor check it for you. It’s important to make sure you have budget for this. Examples of translation fees are provided by the Society of Authors and editorial rates by the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading. A brilliant book can be let down by a poor translation, so it’s important to do this right. (And remember, you can use this sample translation to sell to other countries, too!)
  4. Reduce the risk. The main reason English-language publishers avoid translation is the cost and also the concern about marketing the book if the author isn’t able to travel or doesn’t speak English.

    Many countries offer grants for translation or book promotion, so providing that information along with your pitch can help editors see that there is funding available to them. You also need to tell them if the author is able to travel to their country and speaks the language.

    If the author doesn’t speak English, remind publishers that the translator can often fill this role – either representing the author at events or doing a joint event with them. And with virtual events more common now, mention if that’s something your author is willing to do.

With the English-language market being so large, editors and publishers will never run out books written in their native language. And this is a market that prefers to produce and sell its content, rather than bringing in stories from abroad. But it’s not impossible to get a book translated.

Publishers and editors are interested in content from around the world. However, for commercial reasons, they might only publish one translation a year, or one every two years. By being selective with the titles you promote, finding the right editors for those books, getting a good sample translation, and demonstrating how successful the books or authors are, you’ll have a better chance of seeing your books translated into English.

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Lisa Davis is a freelance children’s book editor and publishing consultant. She helped set up and run BookTrust’s In Other Words programme, which supported UK publishers in acquiring children’s books in translation. She now works with authors and publishers around the world, and particularly enjoys hearing from publishers and agencies who need editorial support with their sample translations, including English language adaptations of rhyming picture books.

Originally from Ohio, USA, she lived and worked in London for nearly a decade, and currently lives in Munich, Germany. You can find her on Twitter @LisaLibros or