By Emily Williams, co-chair, BISG Rights Subcommittee
Traditionally, one of the serious advantages big publishers have offered authors is international reach. They have professional rights departments savvy in the ways of markets around the world, who can place any book to which the publisher controls world rights with a compatible house abroad. The foreign publisher buys the book on the same terms as the US publisher – advance plus royalties – and the US publisher collects its piece of the money and kicks the rest back to the author.
Smart agencies then figured out they could provide the same service and keep more of the money for their clients, and many of them developed their own rights-selling arm. This rights business is a specialized niche and requires not just familiarity with the book market in other countries, but a solid understanding of which publisher does what in each territory, as well as the kind of personal ties with foreign editors that it takes to place a book with the right person and persuade her to buy it.
If a publisher can’t sell rights to a book – as US publishers have been complaining about the UK in the past few years, and Canadians about the US – or can’t find a buyer at the level it wants, it still has the option of exporting copies directly, at least in those markets where readers speak the same language. Traditionally, this too has required the heft of a big publisher, one with the capacity to work with large printers and send shipments of books across the ocean, with the packaging and pricing that meets local requirements, and get those books into the hands of booksellers and libraries in the target country.
But what if, instead of shipping hundreds of books over the ocean or trucking them across borders, you could instead just email a file? Would you still want to sell rights and split the profits?
Would you still need a publisher?
Technology is creating new options for reaching international audiences with both the fast-growing eBook format and with the print books that still make up more than 90% of the market. This in turn creates an alternative to the established business of rights sales: direct, disintermediated access to readers in other countries.
I first learned about Baker & Taylor’s TextStream service during a conversation with a librarian in California who was frustrated at the quality of some of the Spanish-language books he bought from Mexico. Baker & Taylor, which happens to be exceptionally good at serving the Spanish-language book market here, floated the idea of working with the Mexican publisher to print editions for the US market using their TextStream POD service instead of shipping the Mexican edition across the border. This would not only take care of the librarian’s quality concerns (TextStream can print in the durable library format), but could potentially save the publisher lots of money in shipping costs.
The difference with using a self-serve POD supplier is that the book becomes part of the B&T catalog, which makes it available to over 40,000 retail and library customers in 120 countries. Ingram’s Lightning Source has similar POD capabilities and can also print in different languages and reach wholesale, retail and bookstore customers in 100 countries.
In a post earlier this year, Mike Shatzkin forecasted that with eBook sales rising so fast, half of US book sales (print and eBook) could take place online by 2012. In a later post he expanded on the opportunities this offers foreign publishers, who could potentially reach half of the US book market with no local nexus, via eBooks and – more importantly given how dominant print remains for now – via POD.
Selling direct sidesteps one of the most contentious issues in the English-language rights world.
The fight between US and UK publishers over who will control the rights to sell into the open market has only gotten more thorny with the arrival of eBooks, which cross borders with far greater ease than print books. Shatzkin postulates that the ability to sell direct may end this dispute because UK publishers will no longer need to defend territoriality as a business strategy. I agree that it could put an end to some open market battles, but not because publishers will give up on territorial rights – rather because they won’t have to.
With Lightning Source and TextStream operating on both sides of the Atlantic (TextStream is currently US-only but they’ve hinted at expansion plans), UK and US houses could publish directly into each others’ markets without ceding control over their titles or making any concessions.
The big news may be not what flexibility digital publishing options offer to publishers, however, but rather the opportunities it opens up for authors and agents.
Agents on both sides of the Atlantic are under increasing pressure from publishers to sell World English rights to their books, ostensibly for all the joys corporate synergy has to offer, but also so the fight over open market and eBook rights can stay in-house. An agent who is unconvinced by a local house’s ability to sell an author’s book abroad now has a third option beyond finding an overseas publisher or sitting on the rights.
With eBook publishing, the line between professional and self-publishing is already blurry. As for the 90% of the market that remains print, the author now has the option of entering into a non-exclusive POD agreement that allows the book to be stocked by any interested bookseller or library while still leaving the door open for a future rights sale down the road.
Now, there are some big caveats here.
As Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn pointed out during our WEBcast, Book Rights: Headed for a Borderless Future?, what is simplest from a rights standpoint is not always best for the book or the author. Making a book available is not the same as selling it, and when it comes to marketing and promotion, having a local publisher on board with connections to retailers and media almost always trumps an international sales strategy. There is also all the boring but essential stuff publishers usually take care of, not least of which are the identifiers (see ISBNs) and accurate metadata (BISAC codes, good flap copy) without which a book will disappear into the online ether, never to be found again.
Still, under some circumstances going direct clearly has its appeal.
Last week, the widow of Harold Robbins, an international bestseller at one time, announced she would reissue 12 of Robbins’ out-of-print novels through self-publishing services provider AuthorHouse, in a combination of digital, hardcover and paperback formats. The release is mum on international markets, but AuthorHouse has a UK branch and distributes through both Ingram and Baker & Taylor.
Then, on Monday, an interview with uber agent Andrew Wylie revealed that he is unsatisfied with the terms publishers are offering for eBooks, and he is thinking about bypassing them altogether, instead creating a company of his own to publish and market eBook editions of his clients’ backlist titles. Not even the extraordinarily shrewd and international Wylie can overcome all the challenges of selling books direct to international readers (I’ve heard funny stories of agents in his swank London office calling tiny bookstores in rural France trying to set up an author tour), but with 700 clients and a rich trove of backlist titles, he’d not want for interested partners, and tech giants like Google, Apple, and Amazon have the reach to connect his authors with readers (of English) around the world.
When it comes to other languages, even more eBook rights are up for grabs.
Foreign publishers in many territories did not start to buy eBook rights until quite recently, and book contracts with foreign publishers are generally of a much more limited duration (5 to 10 years vs. life of copyright in the US). There are some complications involving acquiring the rights to republish the translation of a book – translators have rights too! – in eBook or POD form, but there are also increasing numbers of non-traditional publishing partners around the world eager to leverage the new technologies and make a name for themselves.
Agents who teach themselves to make the most of the internet’s borderless potential not only to make their clients’ books available, but also to connect them with readers, will be in a position to bypass publishers – whatever the country – who are slow to make the digital transition, and to keep a bigger share of the money from sales flowing back to their authors.
Emily Williams is co-chair of the BISG Rights Subcommittee and a former literary scout who currently works as an independent publishing consultant.