Patrick Nielsen Hayden speaks at the John M. Ford memorial - This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License and was taken by Wikipedia user Dd-b.On his blog “Whatever”, John Scalzi points to a comment posted by Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden in a comment thread on one of his other posts, in which Nielsen Hayden explains exactly why the international e-book retailing system is such a mess, including laying out why it is you can order print books but not e-books from overseas in a form that I must admit is clearer than I’ve seen enumerated before.

The explanation I’ve been familiar with up to now is that for print books, the “store” is considered to be in the country of the bookstore, but with e-books it’s considered to be on the user’s computer. But the explanation offered by pnh is even more succinct than that.

Physical bookstores, pnh explains, aren’t a party to the agreement between the publisher and the author that restricts where and how the book can be sold. So they don’t have to obey those restrictions and never have, and are perfectly free to sell to anyone anywhere who wants to pay them.

But the agreements under which online retailers sell our e-books include restrictions, imposed by us, which require them to keep track of where orders are coming from, and require them to refuse to sell to individuals who seem to be trying to purchase from outside the areas in which we have the right to sell. Effectively, in this case, Amazon (or, or Apple, or Kobo, or whoever) is a party to our agreement which John. So they can’t sell you that e-book, because we don’t have the right to sell copies in South Africa.

Is it a mess? Yes. Nielsen Hayden admits it is, and that the book industry is “starting to […] [rethink] how it handles this stuff.” But it’s how things are right now.

Speaking for myself, I hope it can change sometime soon, but I’m not holding my breath. Industries as big as the publishing industry have a huge problem with inertia, and swinging any kind of effective change might well take years.


  1. “Industries as big as the publishing industry have a huge problem with inertia, and swinging any kind of effective change might well take years.”

    Except when they decided (individually, non-collusively, and *entirely coincidentally* at the same time) to *impose this idiot restriction in the first place* a few years ago.

  2. I think there is still a bit of lack of clarity. Look at the chain of how books are sold. The chain for pbooks goes Publisher > Distributor > Retailer. The publisher has a contract with the distributor, not the retailer, and even with pbooks, distributors are generally geographically limited by contract with the publisher. If the publisher cannot sell the pbook in South Africa, neither can the distributor.

    With ebooks, the chain is usually shortened, certainly with the big publishers. The ebook chain is Publisher > Retailer. In this instance, the publisher by contract imposes the same geographical restrictions on the retailer as it does on distributors of pbooks because there is a direct releationship that permits it to do so.

    There is one additional factor at play. The number of ebook retailers of the Big Publisher’s ebooks that fit the reduced chain is limited — pretty much, here in the U.S., being Apple, Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Sony, and a handful of others, thus making it easy to enforce the geographical restrictions. In contrast, in the pbook chain, there are thousands of retailers but a limited number of distributors, making it easy to contract with the distributors but not with the retailers.

    Finally, let’s not lose sight of the fact that geographical limitations come about because the AUTHOR has decided to limit the area of sales. Authors reserve the right to negotiate a contract with a British publisher and an American publisher, and an Australian publisher, etc. in hopes of making more money and sales. It is the author’s contract with the publisher that limits where and what a publisher can sell. Blaming the publisher for what amounts to an author’s reluctance to give a publisher worldwide rights seems wrong to me.

  3. Don’t blame the author. I have often written to authors to tell them I was not “allowed” to buy their ebooks, and many of them are confused, saying, “But I insisted on world rights for ebooks!” Combine that with labyrinthine contacts which take ebook rights away entirely from authors, and the publisher is squarely in focus.