By Emily Williams, co-chair, BISG Rights Subcommittee
“This is an era when you have to give the consumer – or hopefully sell to the consumer – what the consumer wants. If you don’t you run into lost sales, piracy, and also losing the consumer not just to other books or to pirated books but to other media. Looking at that, territory can very much get in the way.”
– Devereux Chatillon, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal LLP
“There is a local knowledge that would be lost if you went to a more global setting. Aside from the revenue stream of I can sell this twice, I think there is a real danger to giving rights to someone who doesn’t know what to do with them.”
– Miriam Kriss, Irene Goodman Agency
“The reason you publish two separate editions is that there’s a value that’s created in the UK. It’s the way it’s packaged, it’s the way it’s presented. Let’s say there’s a country where the currency is really bad, where the math [for US or UK pricing] doesn’t work. You could create an edition just for that country. We could create an ebook edition priced specifically for the economics of the EU [open market]. We create value because we publish and present books in different ways to different audiences.”
– John Schline, Penguin Group USA
There is a new conversation — to put it in polite terms — bubbling up around the edges of the growing ebook market.
With mainstream publishers and retailers embracing (and battling over) ebooks comes the promise of wider access to content for readers around the world, along with the instant gratification of immediate download and zero shipping charges. Readers could also search retailers freely, regardless of what country they operated in, comparing prices for the UK or US or Canadian editions of the same book.
Briefly, I’m sure this seemed like utopia. The global promise of the internet fulfilled! One world market for literature! The end of national borders!
Then the cold reality of territorial restrictions descended, in the form of unpleasant little messages informing the would-be buyer that, essentially, your currency is no good here. We’re not allowed to sell this book to readers based outside of the US (most often it was the US, where the ebook market is so far at its most developed). The anger was immediate as a chasm opened up between discoverability of titles and the consumer’s ability to buy those titles once he or she had tracked them down.
Just as publishers are trying to learn how to cater to a newly important and growing base of ebook readers, one vocal group of ebook consumers seems angrier than ever.
These readers are impatient with explanations of why territorial restrictions came to exist.
They see the book and want to buy it, and fail to understand why no one seems to want to accept their money. On forums they indignantly demand answers: What is wrong with the book publishers, are they so hidebound they’ll pass up perfectly good sales because of outdated business practices?
Not to add fuel to the fire, but it’s really not that simple.
Territorial rights evolved as a way of serving readers – and authors – better, and for the most part I would argue they still do. The problem is that we now find ourselves at a difficult moment when the transition to digital publishing is moving at very different speeds in different countries, leaving some of the savviest digital consumers mismatched with publishers who are still scrambling to figure out a digital strategy for all the books to which they hold rights.
Why did we start breaking out rights by country to begin with?
Language is an obvious barrier, but is it really necessary to have different publishers each put out their own edition of the same book in the UK and Canada and Australia and New Zealand and South Africa and the US, where we all speak (some form of) English? The answer to this depends on the book, because some books travel better than others, but if a book has a sizable audience in any given country I think it’s better served by having a local publisher who understands the market and can help it reach all the readers who might be interested in reading it.
Those readers are also better served, in the best of cases, by having a local publisher who knows where to find them, what cover will best signal to them the book’s appeal, which media can best match the book with its audience, and which retailers are most likely to reach them and at what price. Any big online retailer is good at giving you what you know you already want, but creating that desire in the first place – getting the word out about a great new title or author – still tends to be a local specialty, and one that doesn’t scale well on the global web.
One of my favorite examples of this is Jennifer Lee Carrell‘s INTERR’D WITH THEIR BONES, published in the US by Penguin as a literary thriller in hardcover and trade paperback while in the UK, Sphere put it straight into mass market as THE SHAKESPEARE SECRET by J.L. Carrell. Who was right? Both editions did well, because they were geared to the realities of their local market.
What appealed to US readers as an erudite but swashbuckling mystery sold better in the UK off supermarket racks as an action-packed code-cracker.
Wishing away borders does not make real differences in national character disappear, nor does it magically do away with variations in the retail, economic and media environment within each country. All the same, the frustration of readers who have discovered a promising new book only to be stymied in their attempt to buy it is just as real, and deserves to be addressed with more than a condescending “you just don’t understand”.
Not all books have big audiences in every territory, and if there is promise for publishers in finding incremental sales that might never have existed before the internet, part of the bargain is finding the way to serve those far flung readers and making the process of paying good money for books as pain-free as possible.
NOTE: The quotes at the beginning of this post were drawn from the 2010 Digital Book World Conference panel, “Tomorrow’s Book Contract“, which DBW Members can listen to here (Check out 5:15 to 25:50 for the rights discussion if you want to get into the gritty details).
We’ll also dig deeper into the question of territory and what’s best for authors and readers in the webcast Book Rights: Headed for a Borderless Future? on Tuesday March 2nd, when I’ll talk with Markus Hoffmann, Agent at Rights Director at Regal Literary, and Michael Tamblyn, VP Content, Sales & Merchandising for Kobo, Inc.
Emily Williams is co-chair of the BISG Rights Subcommittee and a former literary scout who currently works as an independent publishing consultant.