Our June First Friday Club saw Memberships Officer, Sherry Landow, sit down with Penguin RandomHouse Senior Rights Manager Nerrilee Weir to discuss the ins and outs of rights management, book fair pitching, and the art of selling Aussie books overseas.
Weir has been selling rights since 1998. She’s a veteran of over 40 book fairs, including Frankfurt, London, Bologna, Taipei and Guadalajarra, and was Project Leader for the Australian presence at the Taipei International Book Exhibition for ten years (2007-2016), as well as Project Leader for publishing delegations to Korea (2016 and 2017) and China (2017).
She is also the former Chair, Arts Practice, Market and Audience Development, Australia Council for the Arts.
GETTING STARTED IN THE INDUSTRY
Whilst Weir was always bookish, her journey into the world of rights management began as a stroke of luck.
‘I decided to move to London, where I got my first job at Simon and Schuster as an assistant, photocopying manuscripts and getting coffee,’ she said. ‘That was when I first realised that you could do this, that this job existed.’
Upon her return to Australia, Nerrilee rang up Random House and asked if they had a Rights Department.
‘They didn’t, but they [Random House] offered to set one up,’ said Weir, and the rest is history.
HOW WELL DO AUSTRALIAN BOOK RIGHTS DO OVERSEAS?
According to Weir, whilst it depends on the work, the hardest market to break into is North America.
‘That being said, North America love our children’s list,’ Weir laughed. ‘Germany loved our outback romances for so long, but right now that love affair is ending. France is phenomenally difficult. China is booming. The UK remains really, really hard because we’re still seen as ‘the colonial outpost’.’
Weir has had success selling a whole range of genres, from crime, speculative fiction, children’s, YA, cooking and literary fiction, to books that that defy classification (‘It’s like, Crazy Rich Asians meets The Great Gatsby!’). According to Weir, good writing usually sells, but marketplace trends do have big influence.
‘Where I’m finding it harder is narrative non-fiction and parenting. The Americans really took over that market with their very prescriptive, tiger-mum writing style.’
But ultimately, Weir says, a good book will travel to many territories and countries. She regards pitching a book’s ‘Australianness’ as a curricular approach, choosing instead to stress the allure of a work’s story or writing.
‘If we write about the human experience, it’ll travel,’ Weir said. ‘It’s not about the coffee shop. It’s about the people having coffee.’
WHY GO TO BOOK FAIRS?
Weir says that Book Fairs are her favourite part of the year and are ‘all about the publishers’.
‘That whole week, you’re running on adrenalin,’ she said. ‘I start at 9am, I finish at 6pm. At 6:30pm, I go for a drinks meeting. At 8:30pm, I go to dinner. At 12pm, I’m stumbling back to my hotel. It’s not about partying, your managers expect you to do that. And then 9am the next morning, I’m back at my table, bright eyed and bushytailed. You do that for 6 days!’
Within each 30 minute meeting slot, Weir aims to meet as many people as she can, especially individual acquisition editors from America, the UK and all the translation markets.
WHAT MAKES A GREAT PITCH?
‘The goal is to inspire enough interest, that when you send them the book you pitch they go, ‘ah, I remember you, I remember that,’ Weir said.
Rights Managers have to be mindful of pitching to different publishers from all different cultures and backgrounds.
‘You might talk to a very dour German publisher who’s only interested in literary nonfiction, then a gorgeous Japanese publisher who has just bought a book on ACDC,’ she said, ‘And you have to remember: who gets the handshake, who gets the double kiss, who gets the triple kiss, who gets the hand touch?’
Even nailing the perfect hand gestures, intonation and pitch won’t necessarily guarantee a success.
‘This publisher who I have in twenty years never once seen smile… every time I meet her she says, “I only want funny books,”’ Weir laughs. ‘So you never know! Pitching – there is so much that goes into it. You’re trying to establish a conversation with other people. You have to build those relationships. You’re not only pitching at a book fair, you’re pitching towards a particular person. It’s all about networking.’
The trick when pitching, she says, is to be passionate and memorable – a choice reflected by the streaks of pink in her ‘book fair hair’ (‘Every Book Fair, I try to do something different with my hair!’).
Because there’s often so much going on, Weir says, sometimes you need to concede that there may not be enough time to make all the deals you wish to make.
‘It’s great if you can make a deal. But it’s not enough [time], it’s never enough. It’s really that preview,’ she said. ‘You come back [to Australia], do your notes and think about what generated the most interest from which markets.’
Still, Weir maintains that, despite the sweat and blood, it’s all definitely worth it.
‘It’s my favourite time of the year.’