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

In What's the Buzz by Liz Bury

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— automatically puts me onto the 4th Estate edition on 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.)

About the Author

Liz Bury

Liz Bury is a full-time journalist who lives in London.