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Are US Publishers Using E-books to Undermine Territorial Rights?

By Liz Bury

Frankfurt Book Fair veteran agent Andrew Nurnberg has raised the specter of e-book deals being used to undermine territorial rights in an interview with Publishing Perspectives. But his fear that some American publishers may try to use e-book negotiations to break existing rights boundaries left other agents unruffled. Arguments about the primacy of authors’ relationships with their editors, who may work at competing houses in different countries, still appear to hold sway in the case of digital deals.

“The big thing that’s in the air all the time,” Nurnberg said, “is that territoriality is not so much about physical books. Now the question is moving toward territoriality for e-rights. “Some publishers say, ‘No way, we can’t keep these held to any particular territory. It’s no longer physical. If it’s out there then it can’t be controlled.’ They want to use it as a back door to break territoriality and to acquire world English language rights.

“I can’t buy a Farrar, Straus and Giroux copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom from my office in London—Amazon.com automatically puts me onto the 4th Estate edition on Amazon.co.uk because it is following the publisher’s remit to keep the markets separate. If you can prevent a cardholder from buying an American print edition, you can do the same with an e-book.”
Other agents had not experienced pressure to sell world English language rights on digital deals, however.

Agent Andrew Wylie said: “In some cases, where they already have the print rights, it happens; but not where they don’t, no.”

Carole Blake of Blake Friedman agency said: “It would be a very foolish publisher who tried to blackmail an author into doing that. It would upset the whole publishing dynamic if one let the digital edition seep into another market. The publishers we have seen haven’t been pushing for that. Anyone trying to do that would really mess up their relationship with the author and the agent.”
Nurnberg ageed: “Authors might have relationships with editors from competing houses in the UK and US, and those relationships should be respected.”

Discussion about territorial rights on print books had calmed down since the “emotive and emotional” discussion of two years ago. “We’ve had no discussion of territorial rights on print books, so that’s good,” Nurnberg said. “Publishers on the whole regrouped and are doing with physical books what they did in the past, with some adjustments over India.”

In e-book deals generally, the proposal by Random House to pay an escalating royalty on backlist was welcomed.

Random House will pay royalties starting at 25% on a sliding scale rising to 40% as sales go up. “It’s all negotiable with agent and author. It is reasonable, providing we are licensing for 24 months, in which time we will see how things progress. These are backlist books and rights were acquired for the physical only,” Nurnberg said.

The agents reported an upbeat fair in general. Carole Blake has just taken delivery of bestselling author Lawrence Norfolk’s new novel, John’s Saturnall Feast, after 11 years. Feast, about a doomed love affair in a manor house during the English Civil War, was bought as part of a time-unlimited two-book deal by Grove Atlantic’s Morgan Entrekin years ago.

“You have authors that deliver regularly and those who take their time,” said Entrekin. “When you’re working with creative people, pressure is not a particularly helpful stance to take. I know that they are intent on finishing the book. I’d rather wait, and get the best possible book.”

Nurnberg said: “Amidst all the economic doom and gloom, international publishers are completely up for good, fun, fine literary books. I have been introducing authors into Europe not just from the UK, but from China, France, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, and Russia.”

He’d sold Miklós Bánfy’s three volume, “majestic” 1930s Hungarian novel—about aristocratic life in fin-de-siecle Transylvania—into France, Germany, Holland, and Italy.
Judith Schalansky’s The Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Visited and Never Will, discovered by Nurnberg at Frankfurt last year, was also selling. It is just out from Penguin Books in the UK.

(This story originally appeared in the Publishing Perspectives show daily at the Frankfurt Book Fair on 8 October 2010. Download the complete show daily here or click on the image to view the online version.)

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4 Comments

  1. Posted October 8, 2010 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    I wish someone would address the matter of e-book territorial rights from a consumer’s perspective.

    An American expatriate living in Germany or Japan would be able to order a copy of an English-language book shipped in from overseas, but as far as e-books go, he has no options—quite ironic given that e-books have no shipping costs so this person should be able to obtain them instantaneously. Who is going to buy the English-language rights to publish a book somewhere that English speakers make up the minority?

    And that’s leaving aside that there are still plenty of English-language books that don’t have e-book editions even in English-speaking countries outside their native markets. Plenty of American books aren’t available in the UK or Australia, and vice versa.

    When will someone ask these agents what these consumers who want to give them their money are supposed to do when the publishers apparently aren’t interested in taking it?

    Small wonder that e-book piracy is growing.

  2. Posted October 8, 2010 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Yes, and Australians have the legal right to buy books from wherever they like. If you want to stop people exercising that right because of contracts between Americans and people from the UK – of which we have zero reason to care about – you should not be surprised if the collective answer is ‘up yours then’, given people can get them for free. Respect is earned, and they have currently demonstrated none. As mentioned above, Germans or Japanese have no reason to give a crap about UK or USA companies, either.

    Media companies are very scared of actual competition it seems. :)

    Surprising that the Americans, happy to use their economic power in countless industries won’t use it to their advantage here. In the ‘hey, no-name author, you ever want to sell in the USA, you know, the biggest market? Then sell us worldwide rights, or go away’.

  3. Posted October 9, 2010 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    >>>”If you can prevent a cardholder from buying an American print edition, you can do the same with an e-book.”

    Really, what world do these people live in? It’s not the reality everyone else seems to acknowledge and exist in.

    Does he *really* believe that because no PUBLISHER has issued the Harry Potter series in eBook form that it simply DOES NOT EXIST in eBook form?

    All of you wake up. Your stupid print paradigm is DEAD. Your petty territories defined by time and space and borders no longer exist. Rights are global and they are bounded by LANGUAGE. English sells worldwide from America or via translation in Sweden from a publisher there. This is the real world. Please join us in it. And if you don’t wish to, then retire before you get run over by the rest of us.

  4. Laura Fullton
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 5:05 am | Permalink

    I’m with Chris. The point he mentions is one I’ve been complaining about for a long time. I don’t know what Andrew Nurnberg’s problem is, but I have absolutely no problem ordering physical books from the US and having them shipped to Switzerland. Of course I have to pay the import duty, but when an English-language book just isn’t available in any format here, that’s the only legal choice I have.

    What I cannot fathom is why it is just not possible to do exactly the same thing with an ebook. Mind you, not that I relish the idea of ordering an ebook online and then paying an extra “import fee” to have it delivered electronically to my county–that’s a nonsense of such proportions that it makes my head spin. However, at this point *any* legal option would be better than nothing. Because that’s what I’ve got for most titles in Switzerland: nothing.

    The reality of all this is that I end up spending less money on books than I would otherwise. Really, physical books are bulky and it’s a hassle to order and have them shipped so I only do it for books I cannot live without. Then if I have time left to read after those are done, I can get by with all the books that are available legally for free on the Internet. There are more good books available for free than I’ll ever have time to finish in my lifetime, so I don’t feel too deprived.

    If publishers don’t start taking into account the consumer’s point of view, then they will ultimately loose the battle to stay relevant, and it will be a well-deserved loss.

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