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Should UK Agents/Publishers Break Up Commonwealth Rights?

Is continuing to group together Commonwealth book rights good business, hopeless inertia, or merely a self-serving tradition?

By Edward Nawotka

The very concept of territoriality when it comes to rights is being challenged by the digital revolution. It wasn’t long ago that several UK literary agents wondered aloud at the Frankfurt Book Fair if US publishers were using e-books as a way to undermine territorial rights. At the time, agent Andrew Nurnberg noted:

“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.”

Agents and publishers have a strong commitment to holding on to and/or acquiring as many rights as they can — it only makes good business sense, right? As seen from the UK, the urge is especially strong, when one considers that English language rights often cover the entirety of the British Commonwealth. But is selling Commonwealth rights to a work really a viable business plan any longer? Or is it a self-serving antiquated publishing tradition and the last bastion of a nostalgia for a world that has already passed — as many would argue the very idea of the Commonwealth is itself.

The Commonwealth is now a wildly diverse place, that is a mixture of races, ethnicities and socioeconomic realities — and publishing, selling and marketing a book in each country of the Commonwealth requires a different strategy.

So is it, as advocated by the Zeitgeist Media Group, preferable for publishers to break up Commonwealth rights?

Is continuing to group together Commonwealth book rights good business, hopeless inertia, or merely a self-serving tradition?

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  1. Posted March 1, 2012 at 4:24 am | Permalink

    Territoriality is one of the huge issues that digital disruption is challenging big time. For LBF Digital Minds Conference , we’ve made it one of our Table Topics for the ‘unconference’ Join the Conversation’ room, concurrent to the plenary.
    Delegates will get to discuss ,in intimate groups of 10, the topics they are most interested in, with an experience industry expert or lawyer. A first for a conference offering.

  2. Posted March 1, 2012 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    Jens Bammel of the International Publishers Association was asked about this today at PANZcon, and his point was that ebook distribution had made territorial rights easier to manage because the retailers were setup to manage territories at a country level. The question then becomes the business/cultural reason for distribution vs licensing. Most of the publishers in the commonwealth outside the UK strongly support licensing on the basis that they have the relationships with local channels (and in the case of education, Ministers).

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