I have an agent and have sold AU/NZ rights to a well-known company who will be publishing my book (of fiction) in Australia this year. While my agent has said that it’s reasonable to try to sell the book overseas, as far as I can tell he hasn't tried to yet. I've asked why, but he won't give me a straight answer – which could well be because he doesn't actually think it is possible but would prefer not to say. So, how bad would it be for me to try and solicit some foreign interest in the ms myself (I am considering sending it to a couple of overseas publishers)? If anyone was interested, I’d be delighted for my agent to handle the contract. Or is this just silly and/or poor form? Is there some protocol I don't understand about the way these things work, a reason 'we' are treading water (e.g. perhaps it's customary to wait until after Australian publication before exploring overseas interest)?
Overseas publishers often want to wait until there are Australian sales figures before they consider books for publication in their own territories. It's usually a matter of which publisher/agent and how they usually work.
Have you asked your agent about his foreign rights contacts? Does he usually sell foreign rights? If so, does he use co-agents or subagents? These are all valid questions to ask. As far as you sending the ms yourself to overseas publishers - good luck. Unless you have good contacts in the publishing houses you're planning to contact, without an agent (especially in the US and UK) you will go on the slush pile with everyone else. But if you want to try, you must tell your agent what you're doing - it's bad form to submit overseas at the same time as your agent may be trying to do the same thing.
And I'm going to take this opportunity to make a point: most Australian writers seem to think that Australia is a semi-worthless market, that they haven't 'made it' unless they're published overseas. I suspect this has to do with some sort of belief that overseas publication - especially in the US - means big bucks. Well, it doesn't. An advance for a first novel in the US is not much higher than it is here. Total sales figures for literary fiction in the UK - with a much bigger population - are usually the same as here: that's right, 5000 copies sold here for a literary novel, 5000 copies sold in the UK. Fiction is tough. How many Australian novelists have hit the jackpot overseas? How many big Australian novelists sell successfully into other territories? Bryce Courtenay has no overseas profile. Nor does Di Morrissey. They're two of our currently most successful novelists.
So while it's fine to want overseas publication, don't hang your hopes on it, don't despair if you don't get it, and above all don't disparage or downgrade the territory that you are being published in. Australians love books. We read a lot; we buy a lot of books. You have a better shot at being a success if you put lots of energy into your Australian publication and let the foreign rights sales flow from that. A big hit here is usually the best way to get someone's attention overseas, and even then it may not work. It breaks my heart every time an author gets an Australian publishing deal and their next question is, 'What about the UK?' It makes me want to check that Robert Menzies isn't still running the country and that ABC newsreaders aren't using cut-glass English accents. It's 2010. Surely we're not still cultural-cringing?