Writing Rights, Session 3—Carolyn Swayze on negotiating the best possible contract

Carolyn Swayze is the president of Carolyn Swayze Literary Agency, where she represents authors of literary fiction and nonfiction for adults and children. She spoke at the Writing Rights workshop about contracts.

As an agent, she works with authors to decide who will handle the rights in translation. Often publishers with large rights departments believe they are the best to handle them, but Swayze finds that they often don’t do anything with those rights. As a result, she’ll try to sell Canadian English rights only, sometimes North American English, and occasionally North American French and English rights so that the author can retrain translation rights to sell elsewhere. A problem Swayze encounters is that publishers in France usually insist on buying World French rights, whereas she’d like to retain North American French rights to sell separately.

Swayze works with a network of co-agents and literary scouts around the world to sell translation rights. After a while, “You get to know what kinds of books do well in different markets,” she said. Co-agents range from individuals to big international agencies, whereas scouts are paid by publishers, film companies, etc., to seek out appropriate projects for their clients. Scouts play an important role; with the number of books out in the marketplace, “it’s impossible to bring a book to enough people” for their consideration, said Swayze.

Echoing David Scott Hamilton, Swayze emphasized the importance of developing relationships. Seek out publishers and co-agents in countries in which your language of choice is spoken, she advised, and ask scouts for their client list. (On the topic of how to find scouts, Swayze was a bit coy: “Do a little research. There’s all sorts of online material.”) Promote yourself so that people know you exist. Once you’ve established some credibility, you can start negotiating for a bigger cut in your contracts.

Translators often complain about having difficulty getting a royalty split, but Swayze has seen it happen; she even told us of a translator in Italy who managed to secure a split of 50%. The other side of that coin are those who are essentially paid a fee for service, and some translators don’t even get billing on the front cover. If you have an agent, he or she will usually negotiate the contract on your behalf. How do you find a good agent? Swayze suggests researching online and carefully reading an agency’s submission requirements to make sure that you’re a good fit. Also, read the acknowledgements in books in your genre; authors will often thank their agents, and you can get some names that way. If you write nonfiction, prepare a good proposal for an agent’s consideration; for fiction, especially a debut work, you may have to complete it before an agent will look at it.

Swayze is realistic with her advice, warning that if you secure one contract but don’t earn out your advance, it becomes much harder to sell another book.

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