Monday, February 22, 2010

Stumbling Backwards Into the Future: ebooks and Territorial Copyright

The publishing industry is at a very early stage in working out the best way to proceed with ebooks and territoriality.

Right now book lovers around the world are being utterly antagonised. This is happening for the following reasons:

- Territorial rights are being bought for the 'Work', which is inclusive of all formats. This is right and proper and really shouldn't operate in any other way. Calls by literary agents and author associations for authors to withhold e-rights from traditional print publishers are wrong-headed and, like most things that essentially don't make sense in the real world, will quickly come to nothing.

- But publishers are falling into the mistake of running ebooks along the same familiar tracks as print books when it comes to exploiting these geographic rights. Whereas print books are invariably re-issued in the specific territorial edition, ebooks do not need, and shouldn't therefore be press-ganged into, the same analogue dynamic.   

- There is no need at all to 'issue' the ebook into a different territorial edition. All that needs to happen is that the revenue collected for sales into the appropriate territory OF THE ORIGINAL EBOOK needs to be now remitted BY THE ORIGINAL EBOOK PUBLISHER to the publisher who has bought the rights to that territory. There need be no cessation in supply. Amazon, Apple, B&N, Google, whoever, can provide sales data by territory. Amazon does that now for print books.  

- What is currently happening is quite absurd, utterly unnecessary and is alienating readers. Let's take a typical example: if a work, in simultaneous print and ebook editions, is first published in the US, then the ebook (barring any silly 'windowing' or withholding policy) is usually available globally, but only until that publisher or the author's agent sells Commonwealth rights. Then it suddenly, and infuriatingly, STOPS being available outside the US, and this state of affairs lasts for months and months while the Commonwealth publisher (my god how that term grates!) ambles up and publishes its own ebook edition.

- UK and Australian publishers have felt little urgency in releasing their ebook territorial versions, as the installed base of ebook readers has been, and still is, quite small. Why rush in and possibly undermine sales of the more expensive print book? Thankfully, over the next year or so we will see this dramatically change. The demand for the ebook will need to be satisfied.

- This is why Australian Kindle owners are so frustrated by not having available to them tens of thousands of ebook titles that are freely available to Americans. The same with Apple Apps. It is all so unnecessary. The mechanics of rights sales, production, versioning, etc, are not the problem. The barrier is conceptual.

- Which bring me to my final observation about how all this is playing out. It is extremely frustrating to me that e-wholesalers and e-retailers like Amazon, Apple, Kobo, etc are willingly partnering with publishers in this backwards stumble into the future. Unlike for printed books, these new world, glitzy digital entities are refusing to supply whole swathes of global consumers because of restrictive, geographic covenants they've entered into with publishers, that force them to honor territorial deals publishers do with each other. It's a clear breach of common and accepted retail practice. Don't get me wrong: publishers are right to do the deals. But retailers are wrong to withhold supply to their customers on the basis of a crass, geographic discrimination.

- It's even worse than allowing publishers to take away from you the power of pricing by forcing you onto an 'agency' model of supply (shame on you Amazon, for your degrading capitulation to Macmillan). That bad publishing strategy will soon come unstuck I'm sure. Give it a couple of years at the most. Publishers have no business dictating pricing to retailers. (It's quite illegal in Australia anyway, thank god!)

- The question for readers is: how long do we have to wait for publishers to focus primarily on the needs of consumers and work out a sensible path into the future, one free of awkward, analogue dead ends and blockages that have no place on the celesial highway? 


JD said...

Huzzah! Finally someone (else) has spelled out the absurdity of the whole situation! I've just put a similar post on my blog, Peter. It was backed up by a very senior publishing industry source.

Dame Zara said...

I agree it's a frustrating and illogical state of affairs, but as I understand it it is primarily US publishers being (over)cautious about contractual agreements: they don't feel that they are legally able to sell ebook editions outside the US if foreign rights have been sold.

And it is *publishers* who are adding these geographic restrictions to ebook files at the conversion/DRM stage before they even get to retailers.

I've also been waiting for a 'rebel' retailer to test the waters by attempting a global open market in ebooks, but I don't think they're technically able to do it even if they wanted to.

Tim Coronel said...

(sorry, that last comment was from me: 'Dame Zara' is the nickname of my car -- Google thinks I am my car: sad)

Peter Donoughue said...

Thanks Tim. I'm not sure I agree with you re US publishers being too cautious. They are in fact just selling to Amazon, Sony, Apple and the like within the US, so it's the retailer who decides to accept the territorial restrictions and not supply to non-US customers.
You may well be right about the restrictions being forced by the publishers. Retailers have been lamely accepting this state of affairs though.
All parties need to get together to sort out a far better way of proceeding.