Monday, 5 December 2011

Territorial Book Rights - An Unnecessary Evil

Dead to Rights II
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I have had a number of potential readers of Olives - A Violent Romance point out to me that they are unable to download the Kindle ebook, getting a message from Amazon that the book is not available to readers in the Middle East.

This answers one particular burning question for me. In the past, when I have asked why Amazon won't serve content to the Middle East, People Of Knowledge have sagely rubbed their chins and told me it's a question of rights. As the rights holder to Olives, I specifically checked the option on my Kindle Direct Publishing dashboard that opened up distribution to the entire world. There is no rights related reason why my book should be blocked from Middle East based readers. We can infer, therefore, that the reason Amazon is blocking other content from the Middle East - particularly self-published content - is also not necessarily related to rights.

Amazon, Apple and Google are effectively retarding the development of a vibrant and innovative content market in the Middle East. None of these three organisations support the distribution of paid content to the region. They are culturally bombing us back to the dark ages. While the US, UK, Europe and Asia are migrating to e-readers and reader-based content of increasing richness, the Middle East is unable to buy books, content or apps from any of the 'marketplaces' these companies operate.

However, while it's not about rights in my case, it certainly is with traditional publishers - they're holding on to the old territorial models with a tenacity that would almost be admirable if it weren't so fundamentally idiotic.

The idea of territorial rights in publishing comes from the 'old' model of print and distribution, with a little language slung into the mix and some price-fixing to boot. The world can be carved up into a number of relatively neat territories, for instance the US and Canada, UK and Commonwealth or Middle East. Each of these has a common language, can be served by a single print run and distribution/marketing push and network and each can be allocated a price tag that suits the market. (The print run stuff is subject to some cost dynamics - depending on the size of the run and shipping costs, it would likely make more sense to split the run, but it's not something set in stone. The broad target is a 'landed cost' of around 10% of cover price.)

So when, say, a US publisher buys the rights to a book, they take on the cost of print, distribution and marketing. Other markets will also take on translation costs, which are significant. This outlay on a book means that territorial rights are defended vigorously in the traditional publishing world. But it also means that rights have a value - and publishers will pay significant amounts of money to secure the rights to a successful book or a book they believe will be successful.

The Internet has, of course, blown that model wide apart. I can now write a book in Dubai and sell it in Boston, Beirut and Bogota. Interestingly, Amazon gives me the option to set different prices for my book in different markets - and, fascinatingly (well, to me at least) will change the displayed price I see where there are disparities in my pricing. For instance, Olives costs marginally less in the US than it does in the UK (blame the UK government's insane insistence on charging VAT on ebooks) but when I, as a UK customer, visit, the site displays a dollar equivalent of the UK price rather than the dollar price I set for the book in the US market.

Amazon's getting quite good at supporting this type of price fixing - you just need to look at how the Kindle costs $79 in the US and $133 in the UK. They say Amazon is subsidising the cost of Kindles in the US, but to me it looks more like the rest of the world is subsidising them.

So when a 'traditional' publisher creates an ebook and puts it up for sale on, two things happen. The first is the author only gets 20-25% of the price, even though Amazon pays a 70% royalty on Kindle books and there is virtually no cost of print and distribution (about 60% of the cost of a booky book goes on these two). The second is the traditional publisher applies the traditional idea of rights and won't put the book up for sale globally.

Which is insane. The very thing that makes the Internet tick as a platform for e-books is its scale. I can reach readers all over the world with a few clicks, I can sell my book to audiences based on their interests, not their location. The whole idea of the long tail, the concept that makes Amazon possible, is based on scale. Why would a publisher restrict sales of an e-book to a limited home market when it could reach all of humanity for not one penny more?*

The answer is rights - and the publisher's hope that one day it could sell rights to other world markets. And in order to keep that potential asset, the publisher will restrict the market an author can address whilst basing its decisions on arbitrary assessments of what a market will or won't buy based on little more than 'experience' and 'knowledge' rather than trusting us all as consumers and just letting us decide whether or not we want to buy a book about rubber planters in Malaya, geishas in Japan or bullfighters in Spain.

* I'm not factoring in translation, I know. But the opportunity is the same - an Italian book, say, can now be available to everyone in the world who speaks Italian.
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Derrick Pereira said...

The other option could be to sell direct. Setup a payment gateway on the blog, or on a dedicated website, and sell your book direct. Cut the middle men out and you get to keep all the revenue.

unJane said...

I had an uncle who was a bit of a gadget/electronic/photog hound who lived in the UK but made frequent trips to the US. He used to say that whatever cost him $100 was sure to cost him £100 and thought Her Majesty's Gov't was pocketing the difference. Who knows? If Amazon is up to something sneaky they won't be able to maintain that for very much longer. I am am grateful for Kindles. My one bit of instant gratification guilt.

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