Ebook Territorialism

First up, some links and friend-promo…

  • While I was at Worldcon, I had the pleasure of meeting Julia Rios and Sofia Samatar. Julia interviewed us for the Outer Alliance Podcast, talking about “Changing the Conversation” around things like diversity in fandom and at conventions. She also interviewed Nnedi Okorafor and her daughter Anyaugo, and spliced the whole thing together into a podcast you should all run out and listen to RIGHT NOW!
  • My friend Saladin Ahmed has self-published his first collection of short fiction. Engraved on the Eye [Amazon | B&N] collects eight of his short stories together in one easy-to-digest file. Rumors that these stories will cure ingrown toenails, warts, and goblin-breath have not yet been confirmed, but my brother’s sister’s roommate says she bought the book, and her pet monkey totally stopped flinging poop at the mailman.
  • Another friend, Violette Malan, also has a new book out. Shadowlands [Amazon | B&N] is sitting on my TBR pile, but because I’m the world’s slowest reader/reviewer, I haven’t gotten to it yet. So please take this as a temporary “placeholder” blurb. “If my house was on fire and I could only save my kids or this book, I’d save my kids. But I’d be REALLY REALLY SAD about leaving this book behind!!!” -Jim C. Hines

Okay, now on to the meaty bits of the post. (For those who are wondering, the podcast was the mashed potatoes, and the books are cookies and ice cream, respectively. Yeah, I don’t always eat terribly healthy meals…)

I’ve seen a number of unhappy comments about the e-book of Libriomancer [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] being unavailable in other countries. This frustrates me too, since in my perfect world, everyone who wanted to read the book would be able to do so. (Also, my perfect world would have six seasons of Firefly and zero-carb hot fudge sundaes.)

It’s doubly annoying since there are ways to get the print edition in other countries. (See Book Depository, which has free worldwide shipping.) If they can ship a hardcover anywhere in the world, what’s so hard about sending an electronic file?

The short answer is that it’s all about territories. I sold North American rights to Libriomancer to DAW, who published the book in English in the U.S. and Canada. We sold German rights to a publisher in Germany. In some cases, the author sells worldwide rights to their publisher, and the publisher then sublicenses the book to other publishers in other territories.

There are some advantages to breaking Publishingland into territories. For example, it turns out not everyone speaks English, and even those who do sometimes speak/read a different style of English. (Violette always insists on wedging an extra “u” into every other word when she emails me.) So territories allow publishers to tailor their books to their audience’s linguistic preferences, as well as changing cover art where appropriate. I imagine shipping and distribution also played a part in the development of these borders.

And then, along come e-books into a world built for print. Ebook and print rights are pretty much bound together. (I.e., I can’t sell DAW the North American print rights but also give them worldwide electronic rights.) I suspect there’s also fear about undercutting other markets. Thus the sale 0f e-books gets restricted in the same way as the print.

So why can Book Depository sell print books anywhere in the world but a similar company can’t do the same with e-books?

I don’t know. I’m hoping smarter people will jump into the discussion to clarify this point. I’ve read one theory that it’s all about point of sale. Book Depository sells physical books that they have in stock here in the U.S. That sale is considered to have taken place in the U.S., and thus everything’s nice and happy. With e-book sales, there’s no physical stock. Point of sale is the end user’s computer, and if the user isn’t in the U.S., then those territorial restrictions come into play.

ETA: Someone pointed out that Book Depository was a U.K. company, not a U.S. one. Sorry about that!

Like I said, I’m fuzzy on this one, and I hope someone else can help me out.

This will all continue to evolve, but I recognize that it’s incredibly frustrating in the meantime. I wouldn’t mind seeing a shift toward selling language-specific rights instead of territory-specific, but there might be drawbacks to that model too. What I can tell you is…

  • Authors want to be able to sell you books as much as you want to be able to buy them!
  • Self-publishing isn’t necessarily much better in this area. (I’ve got three self-published collections. I selected worldwide distribution, but Amazon and the other online retailers still restrict sales by territory.)
  • This is one of those areas where authors have very little control. (I.e., please don’t yell at us about this one!)

I’d also recommend Seanan McGuire’s post on the same issues and this comment from Patrick Nielsen Hayden over at Scalzi’s blog.

Discussion is welcome, as always.