E-book region restrictions continue to frustrate would-be buyers

ca not available Lately, Canadian Ric Day wanted to read an e-book of the new John LeCarré novel, Our Kind of Traitor. He searched for it in various bookstores and found it was available in the US and the UK…but not in Canada. Though his Google searching to find it turned up plenty of torrent links on the first Google results page.

Does Penguin believe that only Americans and the British read English? Pay attention to Twitter? LibraryThing? GoodReads? No one else in the world reads English and notices new books are available from famous authors? No one else in the world wants to buy ebook versions of those new books (hardcover versions are more widely available)?

This inspired Mike Cane to do a lengthy post to his own blog in which he ranted at some length about the nonsensical nature of regional publishing restrictions. He posted screenshots showing a number of pages of these books, noting that the pirates had also done something for Stieg Larsen’s Millennium Trilogy that publishers would not—make them available as a bundled set.

Cane offers the following advice to the “big six” publishers:

1) Your eBooks are too damned expensive. People don’t give a damn about your “fixed costs” (which includes your too-fat salaries at the very top). Google dominated the entire world starting from nothing. We should pity your overfed overpaid fat asses?

2) There are no more regional rights. The new regions are the boundaries of language. You get to sell English-language worldwide. All other languages are now the sub-rights for “regions.”

3) Start making bundled sets. Or you’re going to screw every writer with a series whose backlist is too damned expensive as single buys.

4) What is your mission? To sell books or to keep your jobs? You can do the latter by lowering the prices to make the former larger than you ever dreamed.

I found out about this in a post by Jeff Kirvin, who had this to say:

Cane’s comments about regional restrictions and bundles really got me thinking, though. Now that I’m reluctantly committing to the Kindle, I would love to give Hachette $50 for Kindle versions of the dozen or so Agent Pendergast novels by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. But I can’t. So I’m faced with buying them individually, or breaking out Stanza to read the eReader copies I already bought. Hachette is leaving money on the table and they probably don’t even realize it.

Instead, I bet the lessons the Big Six take away from this sort of thing is that they need stronger DRM to keep people from pirating their books. Given that most pirate ebooks are lovingly proofread scans of paper copies, I really don’t think that’s going to work. But they’ll try it. Because the alternative is to change “the way things have always been done,” and that’s unthinkable. Right up until they go out of business.

A week ago, I mentioned this problem in regard to comments from agents at the Frankfurt Book Fair who were concerned that American publishers might be trying to undermine territorial restrictions with e-book deals. One agent said that “It would upset the whole publishing dynamic if one let the digital edition seep into another market” and “Anyone trying to do that would really mess up their relationship with the author and the agent.”

Publishers’ and agents’ behavior here are frankly ridiculous. It’s as if they’re trying to drive readers into the arms of pirates. This isn’t a question of cheapskate freeloaders wanting to obtain the results of someone’s hard work without paying for it, it’s a question of people who are perfectly willing, indeed desiring to hand their money over—and being snubbed.

Yes, the region problem is similar to the problem of converting backlist titles into e-books that Charlie Stross brought up a few days ago—the old contracts are written to specify specific regions, and it would require renegotiating every old contract to get the new system in place. But there’s no reason that publishers and agents couldn’t implement language-based rather than region-based e-book rights sales for all their new works going forward. It would just require changing the standard contract, just as the contracts were changed with the advent of e-books in the first place.

20 Comments on E-book region restrictions continue to frustrate would-be buyers

  1. Great to see this. Like Kevin Costner said in Field of Dreams: Build it and they will come. Mutatis mutandis, sell us the ebooks and we’ll buy them. Simple as that. This geo-restrictions is simply “stupid”. I’d like to know, for ex., why Name of the Rose can be unavailable to me as a Canadian Kindle store shopper one minute and not the next. People who purchase ebooks spend a fortune. I’m glad to give my money to Amazon. They sell me what I want to buy at a reasonable price. They make it dead simple for me to impulse buy anytime anywhere. Man, they deserve all the success they have. They, unlike the others, know what they’re doing.

  2. For every book I am not allowed to buy due to territorial restrictions, I either get the epub from the library or I find a pirated copy. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to buy it, but if you aren’t going to sell it to me, you don’t care enough to make it available to my, and you aren’t going to get my money for that title.

  3. Backlist bundles: Yes! At the moment publishers are trying to sell backlist like just-in-paperback new releases. There’s lots of money being left in readers’ pockets by publishers.

    In one of Fictionwise’s (now almost defunct) sales, I bought over 70 Agatha Christie novels, because they were $1 net each. Without the sale I would have bought none. If they had actually been a proper complete set, I might even have stretched to $99 for the 82 books.

    Currently at the UK Kindle store, they’re retailing at around £4-£5 ($6-$8). At the US store they seem to all be $6.99.

    I’m most reluctant even to fill in the few gaps in my set at £4.50/$6.99!

  4. The problem is not territorial restrictions, the problem is unexploited rights. Whichever publisher has ebook rights for Canada has not released an ebook version for sale there (since Le Carre’s agent is British, I’m guessing this is Viking UK). It doesn’t make sense to get angry with the publisher that releases an ebook edition for its own territory but doesn’t have the rights to sell to readers in other territories – Ric Day should be banging down the door of Viking Canada and asking where their Kindle edition is.

    Right now publishing is in a transitional phase in which even the major English-speaking markets are moving at different speeds when it comes to digital adoption, and this can sometimes lead to frustrating situations like this one. It does not necessarily follow that the answer is to abolish the territorial rights model. For Ric Day, this might mean he could get easier access to the latest international bestseller, but it would likely shrink the domestic Canadian publishing industry to a point that the latest international bestseller would be just about all he could buy – the publishers who support and develop local authors might have a hard time surviving without the occasional imported bestsellers to fill the coffers. There are benefits to the territorial rights system that the early adopter ebook readers who are suffering through this uneven transition understandably fail to appreciate, but that they might miss nonetheless if their wish to abolish these rights came true.

  5. Sorry Emily but I don’t buy any of your explanations. There is absolutely no benefits to the territorial model whatsoever for readers and it is simply driving many frustrated readers like Mark above and myself to pirated copies.
    It is about time that Publishing abandoned old models and woke up to the fact that it has all changed. It is not simply a case of migrating an old model to a new package. Territorial right and royalty calculations both need to be abandoned and remodelled.

  6. Right on Howard. Well said.

  7. I agree with the above – what stops Canadian authors to put their work on Kindle for the whole world; to me that’s mind-boggling since I believe the first who benefit from the globalization of book sales will be the so-called local authors who now can reach audience far away. Dan Brown and co are already available in a way or another everywhere, but Joe or Jane Canada is not.

    and this is true for all languages since tons of people who leave in prosperous countries speak other languages and would love buying non-English stuff if available reasonably priced….

    I know for example a bunch of Australian only books that I may try (and even did in some cases) as ebooks, but would not get as print due to high s&h.

  8. I am with Howard on this. They can ‘explain’ all they want to, but the average person doesn’t get it and doesn’t care. They just want to buy the book. And they are being left unserved. It is simply ridiculous.

    It reminds me of the lady who was once on the Dr. Phil show because she worried her teenager was doing the deed with a boy. And Dr. Phil goes ‘wait a minute, didn’t you tell our producer that the boy’s mother actually caught them and called you and told you about it?’ And she says ‘well, you always like to give them the benefit of the doubt…’

    Denial is nobody’s friend. They can argue until they are blue in the face about the reasons and explanations and why the customers *should* behave a certain way, but if the customer is *not doing it* then that ship has sailed. You need to deal with reality, not ideal. And if the reality is that you have customers who are being turned away from handing you their money, and they are upset about it, you had better pay attention to that reality and rectify it yourself, or you might find you don’t like the consequences.

  9. The remark by Mike Cane about “the nonsensical nature of regional publishing restrictions,” is one that makes no sense.

    Books are not simply sold. They’re also distributed, marketed and promoted. Even for ebooks, someone has to ensure that they become available in the proper places online, places that can take payment in the right currency. And if a book is to be popular, there have to be promotions, including advertisements and perhaps the scheduling of a book tour by the author. All of that is done at the national level and it is only fair that the expenses and profits of that promotion be tallied at the national level.

    When we see remarks like that we’re entering the sad, sad world of the geek. It’s a world that exists only in their minds. I see it when I go to websites to find the real address of some corporation and draw a blank. It’s not that the business doesn’t have a physical location for its staff, factories and warehouses. It’s that the silly geeks who did the web pages no longer understand that we still live in a real world with physical dimensions. For them, everything exists only “in the cloud.”

    We can pity them, but we need not take them seriously. For books almost no one reads, borders may not matter. There aren’t going to be any promotions and there will be pitifully little income to divvy up. But for the important books, books that will cost much to promote and offer much in profits, geography does and probably always will matter. The global nature of the Internet will no more change that than the well-established global trade that takes place through ships, planes and the mail has changed the sale of physical books.

  10. Michael says “And if a book is to be popular, there have to be promotions, including advertisements and perhaps the scheduling of a book tour by the author. All of that is done at the national level and it is only fair that the expenses and profits of that promotion be tallied at the national level.”

    We are now in a digital online world, where the vast majority of global eBooks are sold though Amazon, B&N, iBooks or another border-independent online sellers.

    So this statement about ‘National Level’ is utterly ridiculous and can only come from inside the myopic Publishing industry that appears unable and unwilling to drag itself out of the lazy slumber in which it has operated for far too long.

    Online web eRetailers are global sellers. Wake up. Online selling limited by national boundaries is 10 years out of date and is utterly ridiculous as is the justification of local promotion, advertising and this book tour nonsense. I live in Ireland – I myself buy guitars from Nevada, hifi accessories from Germany, DVD player from the UK, lots of music from iTunes. There are no national, territorial boundaries any more.

    A stubborn insistence by the Publishing industry to retain territorial rights will frustrate customers who are well aware of the stupidity of it, lose millions of potential customers and will be a godsend to the pirating of eBooks and will drive millions of decent people with money in their pocket to spend, to torrent sites. I will be one of them and no one will have any sympathy for the next generation of Publishing managers who wake up and smell the coffee after the stable door has been open for far too long.

  11. Howard, I understand you’re frustrated, but that doesn’t mean you’re right. The vast majority of global ebooks are sold through Amazon, B&N, and iBooks? Well, yes, because they were the first movers, just as US publishers were the first to get digital rights to their books cleared. Most other countries (including the UK) are still getting their content digitized and their markets set up. Don’t confuse the way things are right now with the way things must be, or the way they will be 5 years from now.

    I wish for you the world you describe. Your ebooks will come exclusively from the US or UK, and if you have a problem with one you bought you can take it up with them, with all the clout of one reader from a marginal market of 3 million people. Your local writers who can’t get a contract with one of the surviving big publishers in the US or the UK (there will be fewer of them in this world, and no Irish publishers http://eoinpurcellsblog.com/2010/09/29/on-publishing-economics-canabilsm/) can upload their books directly to Amazon, where they might sell a couple of hundred copies if they’re lucky and will be unavailable to anyone who doesn’t have an ereader with access to Kindle, including public libraries. (POD could solve the access problem, but then who wants to pay full POD prices for an unproven, unedited book?) These authors had better know a whole lot about metadata and have hours to spend coming up with marketing strategies, because they’ll be up against all the other authors in all the other territories with no more local publishers to pull for them who are now left with the do-it-yourself model, so discoverability is going to be a major issue. (Online is great for finding things you already know you want, but the things you don’t know about – they have a whole lotta noise to break through before they can grab your attention.) As for you, the reader, you’ll still have plenty of books – there are always plenty of books – and you’ll never know what you’re missing.

  12. It seems clear to me that this model is so stuck in the past it is hard to penetrate. Irish Writers and thousands of others around the world are now free to selling their eBooks to any country in the world online. It is naive in the extreme to think that only Amazon et al can market to readers. There are many many opportunities to launch far better eBook web sites than Amazon, with far superior interactive, social content sites and Kindles and iPads and the long line of eReaders coming on stream will be able to buy from any of them. Readers are the quintessential customer who likes to explore alternative sources and not be limited to the mega stores.
    The world of online eBook sales is just starting. Over the next two to five years we will see many new online eRetailers appear. The anti trust monopolies will be broken, and readers will be able to buy from many different sources and from any eReader. Territories will be a thing of the 20th century and global publishing will be the norm.
    If things keep going as they are with the Publishers had in the sand, however, we will experience 5 or 10 years of massive illegal downloading and lost opportunity by writers before reality sets in as it has in the Music Industry. In the meantime however a generation of writers will be either lost or under-appreciated and under-read.

  13. Once again, hear hear Howard. Well said (albeit a few typos).

  14. Ooooh you are cruel Devini ! 😉

  15. While I agree with Howard in principle, it’s not a simple to create a global market as it sounds. Most of the existing publishers and distributors have, as I understand it, signed contracts to limit their reach. The US companies won’t try to sell in the UK, the UK companies won’t sell in Canada, and so on. That’s slowly changing — Amazon has deals to sell in a lot of markets — but it will take time.

    And, as with the music industry, we’ll all get screwed in the meantime.

  16. Reader@holidays // October 19, 2010 at 10:45 pm //

    @Andy says:

    “it’s not a simple to create a global market as it sounds. Most of the existing publishers and distributors have, as I understand it, signed contracts to limit their reach.”

    @Andy – that may be true, but google, rapidshare, hotfile, bittorrent, and IRC don’t care where you live and what your IP is – they will all sell you almost any book you want and all at a great price – free. If you can’t get a legal paid version easily in a way that makes the pirated version appear harder and clumsier, then you will never be able to get people to buy your legal books when the publishers finally get their sh*t together – by then, granny will see how easy it is to pirate and will be that much harder to convince to abandon the dark force of piracy.

  17. Andy – you are absolutely correct. But if things were easy we would all be wealthy. Global Publishers may well stay with the megastores. But there is still plenty to play for in local countries/regions and if you look at any other market in goods megastores have often taken a very large slice of the market but in most cases there has been plenty left to create active competition. What is needed is imagination, ambition and innovation.

  18. Hear Hear.

    My first thought on receiving an email yesterday from Watersones in the UK who had previously sold me eBooks but are now not allowed to anymore thanks to publisher’s restrictions on selling to people outside the UK was that I would simply obtain pirated books. I know they’re out there and I know they’re easy to get hold of – I haven’t done so because I want a few pennies to go to the authors of the books I love but at this point if my choice is to not read the things I want to read or obtain them illegally I think I’ll choose door 2. Stupid Stupid Stupid publishers.

  19. Most books i like to read in english are not avaiable on the european (non english) markwt, most of them from small authors who do not have the sales making translating them rewarding.

    So shutting of an whole continent to small american and canadian authors does hurt the authors, no one else.

  20. Sorry for the thread necromancy, but this was the most current example I could find so I included it in my latest blog post that touches on regional restrictions of e-books at http://karldrinkwater.blogspot.com/2015/09/what-do-you-call-yours-book-types-and.html

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