Crossing Borders on Demand

Emily WilliamsBy 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.

Mike Shatzkin

"By the end of 2012, we’re saying half of all the sales potential can also be reached with the product without a local nexus: no requirement of local inventory or any shipping or revenue collection facility beyond your digital distribution and print-on-demand partner."

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.

Andrew Wylie

"We will take our 700 clients, see what rights are not allocated to publishers, and establish a company on their behalf to license those e-book rights directly to someone like Google,, or Apple." - Fifteen Percent of Immortality, Harvard Magazine

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.

8 thoughts on “Crossing Borders on Demand

  1. John Maher

    Very interesting. Over the decade and more that thyese services have been available, It has been surprising to see the limited overall use that publishers have made of POD for extending the international availability of their titles, not just to reach audiences in, say, the USA, but to take advantage of the global reach of online retailers like Amazon, The Book Depository and others. I’d like to add another element fpr consideration to what you write: in countries that for one reason and another have either inadequate online bookselling options and/or are developing restrictive ebook platforms, might it not make sense in terms of their own domestic market as well as internationally for publishers in, for instance, Spain to have their paper and ebook catalogues listed in these globally effective online booksellers? I’d suggest that domestic book buyers would be able to get books more quickly and cheaply from foreign online booksellers than from online retailers in their own country. Maybe I’m missing something that makes this problematic.

    1. Emily W.

      Thanks for your comment, John, very thoughtful. Spain is an interesting example and one I had in mind when writing this piece because in fact the biggest agency in the country, Balcells, has made a similar calculation as Wylie, expressing dissatisfaction with current ebook terms and refusing to sell them to publishers at the going rate. Also like Wylie, Balcells has a very large client list with some enormously prestigious names and a strong backlist. The agency has not announced any broad based alternative publishing plans like Wylie has, but they did start experimenting with self-published ebooks for some of their authors, explicitly because of the difference in royalties.

      The problem I see with extending this model in Spain at the moment is the lack of a really viable online retail partner. Spanish consumers can buy from Amazon, or Apple, or potentially Google, but there is no domestic equivalent of Amazon in the US, a portal where large numbers of people are used to shopping for books in every format (not to mention almost anything else from electronics to furniture to shoes). This huge established customer base is what gave Amazon the retail heft to transform the ebook market in the US, and it simply does not have the same pull over the market in Spain, nor does any other domestic or international online retailer.

      That said, there are some interesting experiments going on, and a few contenders who could grow up to become an online retail force – Casa del Libro is the obvious candidate for books if they ever figured out a real online strategy, or newcomer Abalúlibros (which I wrote about here, or some of the ebook/POD upstarts like Leer-e. From what I hear there are also some serious complaints not just with the big new digital distributor but with the old-fashioned print book distributors who can make life difficult for booksellers who are trying to maintain a carefully curated selection for their customers. If one (or more) of these companies can figure out a lean and efficient way to reach a substantial portion of the Spanish book-buying public – online or in brick and mortar stores – then absolutely, publishers and agents (and potentially authors too) could benefit from the new technologies that allow them a more direct route to readers. For now, I think that key piece – reaching readers in substantial numbers – is what is holding up a shift from the big box store-dominated model in Spain today to a more diversified market.

      1. Kate (@nosycrow)

        Am I missing something here? Isn’t there a rights-to-the-translation issue. If Spanish (print) publisher A buys a book from UK publisher B, and it’s by Joe Smith and translated by Jose Perez, then the Spanish (print) publisher has rights in the translation itself. Publisher B would have to retranslate the book – and so book would be different – if they retained Spanish-language e-book rights rights. Not insurmountable perhaps, but confusing at the very least. Which would be the “real” Spanish translation?

        1. Emily W.

          Hi Kate, thanks for joining in. You’re not missing anything, this is an issue I glossed over a bit in the post. In the case John presented there wouldn’t be a translation issue, because he’s talking about a Spanish house publishing a Spanish ebook through Amazon or one of the other international e-publishers/distributors. This is absolutely possible (and legal), but you have the problem of reaching a broad audience, as I explained above. In the case you’re talking about…if the Spanish publisher acquired ebook rights along with translation rights, they could publish an ebook version of the translation with no conflict. If, as you suggest, the UK publisher sold translation rights but withheld ebook rights there would be a question of obtaining rights to republish or reissue the translation. I think this is more likely to come up with older titles where rights have reverted and/or ebook rights were never contemplated in the original contract. If the author or agent or UK publisher wanted to publish an ebook version of the Spanish translation, they would need to acquire the rights either from the Spanish publisher or from the translator (who controls those rights can depend on the translation contract, the laws in the country where the translation was made, and how much time has passed). On the other hand, if rights have reverted, the UK publisher (or author or agent) is in a strong bargaining position because the Spanish publisher can’t do anything with the translation, in print or ebook form, without reacquiring the rights to publish.

          This is a complex issue, especially because most translation contracts didn’t include ebook rights until quite recently, and the US isn’t the only country where new players are entering the publishing game. I’ll be going into this more deeply in future posts.

    2. Clytie Siddall

      As a keen reader of ebooks only (due to disability), I have a couple of comments.

      1. John, you’re quite right: for years it was easier and cheaper for customers in countries like Australia to buy ebooks internationally (this still applies to hard-copy titles, despite international postage) than to buy locally. Access to international sites expands your range and activity remarkably. I bought over 1200 titles from Fictionwise in 2 years. However, once the geolimitations curtain was abruptly dropped, I was unable to access most of the titles I want to buy. The effect: I have bought very few titles since geolims were imposed. (I actually spend all my reading/purchasing time hunting (generally fruitlessly) for books I’m allowed to buy, and trying to find out what on earth is going on.)

      Borders (with Kobo) have opened an online shop in Australia, and as they get the bugs out of the interface design and put some resources into customer service, they may well be a viable option. But meanwhile, we Australians largely aren’t buying ebooks. This is a net loss to the publishing industry, so their strategy (if any) puzzles me. I also consider the geolimitations discrimination against disabled people, since we need books to deal with our pervasively grim situations, and often can read only ebooks.

      2. I gather some of the confusion and inconvenience caused by geolimitations is due to applying older print contract zones to ebooks. That’s silly enough, given the very different circumstances (especially the fact that we are allowed to buy the same title in hard-copy internationally). However, there doesn’t seem to be any consistency in how this is applied to new releases. A few weeks back, HarperCollins released three early volumes (2-4) of a very popular fiction series in ebook for the first time. I went to Amazon to buy them. I was allowed to buy volumes 2 and 3, but not allowed to buy volume 4. WTF? How can three consecutive titles from the same series by the same author, released on the same date to the same retailer by the same publisher, have different geographic “availability”?

      I asked Amazon, and they sent me a predigested response blaming the publisher. So I wrote to HarperCollins. I’m still waiting for a response.

      I don’t know if this comment fits in with this particular blog, but it may give you some idea of why ebook purchasers are confused and frustrated (especially disabled people).

      1. Emily W.

        @Clytie – as you say, the issues you bring up are outside the scope of this particular post, though I am sympathetic to readers stymied by the incomplete transition publishers have made to selling ebooks. We talked a bit more about the reasons this can happen in the WEBcast linked above. Out of curiosity, which series were you trying to purchase?

        1. Clytie Siddall

          Hi Emily, thanks for your reply. I was trying to buy the Argeneau series by Lynsay Sands:

          2. Love Bites (K)
          3. Single White Vampire (K)
          4. Tall, Dark and Hungry –

          As you can see from the excerpt from my list, I was allowed to buy volumes 2 and 3 in Kindle, but not volume 4.

          If this gives you any further insight into the confusion created by geolimitations, I now have to manage lists and a complex catalogue to keep track of my ebooks. For example, previously I bought volumes 1 and 5-12 of this series from Fictionwise, but then was not allowed to buy any more. In many series lists, I’ve had to find titles from several different retailers, in several different formats. Navigating the series means keeping one eye on the list, then jumping from one device to another and one reader app to another. It’s a far cry from the days when I had everything neatly arranged on my Fictionwise bookshelf, read in one app on one device.

          Geolimitations severely reduce accessibility for disabled readers.

  2. ana maria santeiro

    I’m a literary agent in Brasil and I am seriously concerned with these new possibilities for the books. Countries, like Brasil, with a weak bookstore structure can profit a lot with ebooks or books on demand. Very nice article and comments.



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