There’s a massive thread of painful death over at Dear Author about the geographic restriction problem.
Full disclosure: I sold Harlequin world rights, including translation rights, for my books, and they have done a phenomenal job of getting my book out there–and if you want to get an idea of how awesome take a look at this, which isn’t even a complete list–but even though I have been extraordinarily lucky in having a publisher that exercises the rights I’ve granted them, there are geographic delays involved and different pricing levels in different countries, and I’ve heard from readers that this is frustrating.
For those who don’t know, the geographic restriction problem is this: Historically, authors sold rights to territories. You would sell your U.S. publisher rights to publish your book in the United States, a U.K. publisher rights to publish in the U.K., and so forth.
In a world of print books, this just makes sense. It would make no sense to sell a US publisher both US and UK rights, because the US publisher would have no way to publish the book in the UK: no sales force to get the book into bookstores, no warehouse to store books when sent over to make sure they arrived on time, and so forth.
The end result, of course, is that some books would not be published in some territories. English-speakers who happened to live in Thailand would have to resort to expensive importing schemes. But the number of such sales lost would have been small, not sufficient to justify producing a book in the country of choice, and so publishers and authors shrugged–you can’t win every battle.
Enter e-books, and this stops making economic sense. In a world of e-books, you don’t want to slice things up by territory. You want to slice them up by language, so that the book is available in English, everywhere, at the same time, at the same price.
The problem is that we’re still locked in to the old system. Why did cowry shells work, in some parts of the world, as currency? Because people accepted them. And what would someone do if you tried to hand them some useless bits of paper in exchange? Well, they wouldn’t think much of it. And, in fact, if everyone else used cowry shells, you can’t walk in and say, “Hi, everyone, I’d like to buy your goats, and here are these AWESOME things called dollars.”
This is true even though paper currency is more efficient and easier to transport and less subject to being crushed when a goat steps on it.
Some of this problem is caused by authors. Authors want to maximize the amount of money we get, and so authors may only sell a publisher US rights. If the publisher sold the book to someone outside the US, they’d be in violation of their contract, and they don’t want to do that.
Some of this problem is caused by publishers. Some authors do sell publishers rights to world English–and the publisher won’t sell the book outside the US territory, because they know that (1) they can only effectively use the rights in the US (and by “effectively” I mean “both print and digital”); and (2) if they want to get the most money for what they’ve purchased, they want to resell those rights to a publisher in another territory; but (3) they will not be able to resell the rights to a territory if they do not give that other publisher exclusive rights in that territory. So a publisher with world English rights may choose not to release a book worldwide because it believes it will make more money if they try to get someone else to release it in another part of the world.
It’s even worse than I’ve made it out to be because the global consolidation of what used to be national publishers has locked publishers into the territorial divide by contract.
I could not insist in my next contract that Harlequin release the digital version of my book for a worldwide audience simultaneously. Or, at least, I could insist on it–but Harlequin almost certainly could not comply with my demand, even if they really, really wanted to.
I’m interpolating from available facts, but this is my basic idea of how Harlequin works. I sell world rights to everything to Harlequin S.A., a Swiss corporation. Harlequin S.A. then licenses my book to the various foreign arms of Harlequin, one of which is Harlequin Enterprises, Limited, a Canadian corporation–who produces the US edition. I am guessing that these foreign arms are in fact separate corporate entities, and that they are held together in the complex web of “Harlequin, Mills & Boon” by contracts that dictate territorial scope.
If Harlequin Enterprises, Limited, decided that it wanted to release e-books worldwide, it would probably be in violation of contracts it has with Mills and Boon over in the UK as well as Mills and Boon Australia. I’m guessing, but I suspect that there are very firm anti-poaching rules written into these agreements.
I suspect the same thing is true with the US and UK branches of Simon and Schuster, and HarperCollins and so on and so on.
At this point, if you sell your books to a major New York publisher, one that has foreign arms, they are probably bound to respect some foreign publisher’s territory by contract. And so even if you sell your publisher the right to release your book everywhere, simultaneously–they won’t exercise that right, and they probably cannot do so without breaking contracts already in place.
Like I said, this is interpolation: I have not, in fact, ever seen a contract between Mills and Boon and Harlequin Limited or HarperCollins Australia and HarperCollins US, but I can infer their existence on the basis of behavior.
In other words: Even if I wanted to sell something other than cowry shells, my publisher has probably entered into contracts that bind them to sell in units of cowry shells.
This is lock-in: a situation that may not be best for anyone today, but because of the way things arose historically, we’re stuck. At least for now. At some point in the future, when global e-books take off more than they have done now, the contracts between sister arms of publishers are going to start to disintegrate.
None of this problem is caused by readers, and they’re the ones who get stuck in the middle and slapped around and told they can’t buy books they want to buy.
This is definitely a failure. It encourages piracy. It leads to lost sales. It means that people who want to read books can’t. All of those things make me sad.
But I can’t fix this by making demands in my contract. My agent can’t fix this by making demands in my next contract.
I could fix this if I published with an epublisher that releases worldwide. I haven’t done that because I know that I will reach more readers if my books are in print.
And that is my decision–and I do take the responsibility and the blame for it, because it does leave some people out–but I know that I would get as much frustrated e-mail from readers who couldn’t find my book in Barnes and Noble and the grocery store as I would from readers in Thailand.