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 bn.com, 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.