About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The World From Here

One topic which I covered in my 2012 review which I think deserves a little more attention is that of the global market for English language books.

As a quick primer, there are three basic kinds of publishing deals, most all deals fall into one or the three categories:

North American.  You give the publisher the right to publish the book in English in the US and Canada.  You keep rights to the British Commonwealth (Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, different definitions after that which can range from a couple dozen to several dozen countries).  The world outside of North America and the British Commonwealth is something called the "Open Market" where everyone can distribute a book on a non-exclusive basis, mostly countries where English isn't a first language, like continental Europe or Brazil or Russia.

World English:  You give the publisher the right to sell the book everywhere throughout the world in English, the publisher can either license Commonwealth rights to a British publisher or distribute its own edition.  You keep the right to sell the book in translation.

World:  Your publisher can sell the book everywhere in any language, either in its own editions or in licensed editions.

This post talks about World English and North American deals.

To put things into historical perspective, some of today's largest publishing companies have roots that go back well before the first flight by the Wright Brothers.  If we look at HarperCollins, the earliest ancestor company founded by the Harper Bros. in the US was founded in 1817, and William Collins was founded in 1819.  Bertelsmann was founded in 1835, the main Random House it owns in the US was founded in 1925, around the same time as Simon & Schuster.  If you go back all that way, it is easy to understand the clear business rational for having separate publishers.  Books had to go by boat.  The British still had extensive colonies with preferred trading arrangements.

As the years have gone by, the world has become smaller.

And certainly, for many decades, the distinctive US and UK markets have been a bit leaky.  Under legal concepts like the "first sale doctrine," if I buy something I get to do with it as I please, so there's always been a so-called gray market, not just for books but for everything from toothpaste to high tech gizmos, where I can buy a product in the US or UK or Kenya or Thailand and then re-sell it where I please.  Many companies may have contracts with their distributors that limit these rights under first sale doctrine, governments may put some restrictions on, but things will leak.  In Australia, a British publisher can't claim the market exclusively if it fails to make its edition available in Australia within a couple months of first publication, and that takes precedence over a pubishing agreement.  In publishing as in most copyright businesses, the trade is one way, the US sends a lot more of its books into the UK than the UK sends to us.

Because there was, is and always will be leakage. publishers in the US and UK on both ends of a split rights situation, publishers have always had to have a certain realpolitik in approaching violations of territorial exclusivity.  Other than for really really big books we generally look the other way.  I don't come back from a trip to London with a long list of US editions that are on sale at Forbidden Planet in London even though the US publisher doesn't have rights to sell in the UK.

But the world keeps getting smaller, and every so often, tension flares up between publishers that feel that the best solution to the shrinking world is to obtain World English rights at minimum and sell their books globally, and between authors and agents who would still prefer to have the ability to do separate licenses.  Several years ago, there was a short-lived kerfuffle that didn't amount to much, as most of these things don't usually amount to much, when the European trading market became an open one, so someone could buy the US edition legally in Germany and not have legal restrictions on sending that US edition into the UK.

The world continues to shrink.  The e-book as an example isn't as easily respectful of national borders.

And there is an interplay between all of these things.

As an example, once upon a time if a British publisher wanted to protect its British market, it could ask local British booksellers not to import the US edition and expect to have this respected.   Now, Amazon is a bit more likely to push back on the idea that it can buy a US book for its subsidiary in Luxembourg where it hides all its European profits for lower tax rates, and that is is perfectly able to sell that book in the UK thanks to the European free trade zone.

And readers with their e-gadgets can have this expectation that they should be able to buy an e-book whenever and wherever they please, and can quickly e-mail their displeasure when they are kept from their zen.

And most of the major publishers are divisions of UK, German or French publishing conglomerates that have major operations in many parts of the English speaking world.

So once again there is this sense that the global imperative is to buy World English rights to things.

I'm still not fond of the idea.  I've kicked the tires on it, and I still don't think it's the best thing for the author.

The publishers are right about one thing, that there are lost sales in the global e-book market when the US publisher doesn't have rights to sell an e-book in however many dozens of countries its contract defines as the British Commonwealth.  And it's much easier for readers to go on the internet and e-mail publishers and authors and do blog posts and tweet and etc. etc. their immense dissatisfaction that they are not able to buy some book they would very much like to buy.

Of course if the author is able to also sell the book to a UK publisher, then there' s somebody pretty much everywhere to sell an English language e-book.  But the UK market is much smaller than the US market, there's never a place or way that every book published in the US can find a UK publisher.

And even without a UK publisher, the author now has the ability to publish an e-book edition, it's just a question of uploading a file and checking off the right country boxes.  However, you can't use the US cover art, necessarily.  You need to have the final copy-edited file.  There are obstacles like that, and since the UK market is so much smaller, if you aren't pretty certain you'll actually sell your book in quantity outside of North America, it might not be worthwhile.  Your US publisher has the electronic file, has rights to the cover art, it can sell the e-book globally more easily.

But...

To the extent that there will be "gray market" distribution or leakage of your book, most of that will happen whether or not you've sold anyone British rights.  i.e., even if you don't sell UK rights to your US publisher, Forbidden Planet and Amazon and Waterstones will still all import your book if they are inclined to do so, actively distributing US books into the UK isn't usually something that the US publishers work on, you aren't likely to lose many print sales because you've chosen not to sell World English rights and haven't then found a UK publisher.  E-book sales yes, print no, you might hear from some people who feel they have a constitutional right to buy and e-book instead of a print sale but won't from the people who just quietly go and buy the print edition which is easy enough to buy when they see it's not available as an e-book.

In the UK, major retail outlets like WH Smiths, which operates in almost every airplane and train station and also has larger stores on the "High Street" in local towns, doesn't really carry US editions, the mass marketers like the supermarkets don't, Waterstones carries fewer imports than it once did.  If you want to really cover the UK market you kind of still need a UK publisher to places sales calls on all of these UK accounts.

It's the same in Australia, even when there's no legal restriction on importing the US edition the major retailers still take their lead from what the British publishers can supply.

And even in this day and age of the internet, a lot of sales are still driven by local promotion and publicity.  Yes, there are websites and blogs that can sell lots and lots of copies, more than the NY Times Book Review ever could do, but not everyone in the world reads every website.  So a book like Myke Cole's CONTROL POINT has a lot more reviews in the UK because it has a UK publisher Headline behind it, and sold a lot more copies in part because Headline arranged for the book to have decent carriage at WH Smiths.  On balance, I believe there is still enough of an upside to Myke Cole to have an actual UK publisher that it makes up for some other client we have who is losing some UK e-book sales because there isn't a UK publisher.

(The above may come as a surprise to some UK publishers, who are often resistant to buying books for the UK after their US publication because they are so entirely sure that all of the UK readers who might want will have purchased the imported edition from the US.  No matter how many hundreds of thousands of imported copies have sold, the UK publishers can for most books squeeze out far more sales than that if they apply themselves to it.)

The example above might suggest that an author is better off not risking that they will be the author who loses e-book sales so that Myke Cole can sell extra copies.  This is a conflict that agents like to ignore but which is very real, sometimes agents have to ask clients to "take one for the team," and do things that may hurt them but which are of overall benefit to published authors as a class.

However, in this case there are other factors that an author has to consider.  As an example, if you sell World English rights, is the publisher offering a higher copies sold or dollars earned threshold for determining if a book is in print than when it buys just North American rights?  Will you have a more difficult time ever getting a reversion of rights in either territory or both because you have sold World English?  Do you have an assurance that you will get a full UK royalty on copies sold in the UK market, or will the publisher claim a UK publication by an affiliated company is a license?  If the UK copies sold are to be sold under an export royalty that is generally less than full royalty, will there be any sleight of hand in the price paid from the UK publisher to the US publisher?

And what about packaging and marketing and promotion and publicity, where there are still differences (Myke Cole has different covers) and still some benefit to the local touch in the local markets.

Considering that many US books will sell only several hundred copies in the UK, you have to be convinced that the UK e-book market is a lot more significant than it often will be in order to justify the risks inherent in doing World English rights against the rewards.

To take this one step further, if we are agreed that it is still important to have separate publishers in the US and the UK, the question becomes "will I, my agent, or my US publisher have the best chance of finding a UK publisher for my book."  If you believe that the US publisher has the best chance of doing this, then by all means, sell the publisher World English or even World rights.  An agent that isn't trying very hard to sell these rights isn't helping anyone by keeping those rights for you/the agent to sell.

It may not surprise you to know that I think, in general, that I will be more dedicated over time in campaigning to sell UK rights than the publisher will be.

I have tried my best to consider in an objective manner if it's time to reconsider my reluctance to do World English deals because of the ways the world has changed.   I'm not unaware of those changes, not unaware of the difficulty in separating out the UK and US markets as the world gets smaller and the e-book market develops.  But I don't think the world has changed, at least not yet. to where we'd all be better off selling World English rights to things.

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