|Bologna Children's Book Fair 2014|
Basically, publishers from all over the world gather in a giant convention complex, set up booths with their books, and work to sell rights into other countries and create buzz for their titles and their authors. Agents, sitting at tables not big booths, also work to sell the rights to foreign publishers that their authors still hold.
What are these "rights" I'm talking about?
If I write a book, and my agent sends my book to XYZ Publishing, and XYZ Publishing wants to make me an offer for that book, they are going to want to acquire the "rights" to do so. What rights they ask for and what rights they are granted is negotiated between: XYZ, my agent, and myself.
Here is a (very basic) explanation of what they could get:
|Rebecca Taylor, Bologna Italy 2014|
World rights: XYZ has the right to sell the rights to publish my book to other publishers in other countries in any language. So instead of your agent (or their foreign rights co-agent) working to sell your book into other countries, the publisher is doing this in house. In Bologna, American publishers were meeting with foreign publishers to try and sell their books (for which they held World rights) into those countries.
World English rights: XYZ has the right to sell the rights to publish my book to other publishers in other countries that predominantly speak English. XYZ is going to work to sell my book into the United Kingdom, Australia, etc, etc. My agent/foreign co-agent will work to sell the rights into other, non-English speaking countries. In Bologna, there was a room called "The Agent Center" where literary agents met with foreign publishers trying to sell any rights their authors still held.
North American rights: XYZ has the right to publish my book in North America. My agent works to sell the rights into everywhere else.
North American English rights: XYZ has the right to publish my book in English in North America. My agent would work to sell the rights everywhere else (including Spanish translation into Mexico and every other territory.)
Some people think that giving your World rights to a publisher is a bad thing. Not necessarily so. It completely depends on that publishers ability to sell the rights into other countries. Some publishers, especially the largest houses, have foreign divisions in other countries that can facilitate the spreading of your book throughout the world. Your book, if it is a hot title, could find a home in other countries more readily because of these already established, in-house, connections. Furthermore, some publishers (large or not) have in-house foreign rights managers who have established relationships with editors in other countries--your agent, or agency, may or may not have someone who is capable of doing this.
World rights are not such a great thing to give away when working with a very small house (who quite probably does not have foreign connections nor do they have a foreign rights manger working to sell rights into other countries.) If your small press holds World rights, and they are not actively trying to sell those rights into other countries, they are basically just sitting on them and preventing you, or your agent, from working to sell your book to foreign presses--or even self-publish your title in foreign countries. Of course, many small presses have "non-negotiable" contract language so just know what you're getting into.
As I said before, this is just a basic explanation and I am certainly not an expert. Contract language can get pretty thick in the weeds, so always turn to your agent or literary lawyer for a more detailed explanation. Also, if anyone has a better or more complete understanding/explanation, please feel free to jump in on the comments--I'll edit the post to be more correct if necessary.