Publishing Perspectives has a piece looking at one agent at the Frankfurt Bookfair expressing concern that publishers might be using e-book deals to undermine book territorial rights in general. Andrew Nurnberg seems to be relatively alone in his concerns, however.
“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.”
I would be inclined to suspect that if Nurnberg really wanted to buy the American edition of that book, he could do so easily enough. Amazon isn’t the only game in town, after all; I’m sure that even apart from other bookstores, there are plenty of people selling copies on eBay or Craigslist or other such places that would be willing to ship overseas.
Other agents were doubtful that this was very likely:
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.”
Of course, in none of this is there any discussion about readers who live outside of areas where the English-language versions of the books are being sold. 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. 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.
It would be nice if there were a little less concern about “upsetting the whole publishing dynamic” and more concern about upsetting consumers who can’t get the e-book editions they want in their native countries.