Sunday, February 11, 2007

Turf Battle In Publishing, Part I

Okay, I'm ready to settle in and talk about author rights. This will probably be a two-day post.

When an American writer signs a contract, s/he typically gives his/her publisher either exclusive American rights, North American rights or world rights. Exclusive American rights means no other publisher can publish that manuscript in the U.S. during the contract period. Exclusive North American rights means no other publisher can publish that manuscript in the U.S. or Canada (Mexico is not included) during the contract period. Exclusive world rights means no other publisher can publish that manuscript during the contract period. World rights can also be broken down into English Language rights or All Language rights.

Traditionally, U.S. and British publishing houses have retained exclusive rights to their own territory, but have competed for the Open Market--the rest of the world where either (or both--there are also non-exclusive rights) could buy English Language rights. As an example, when J.K. Rowling, the British writer, signed a contract for the Harry Potter books, Bloomsbury was her British publisher and Scholastic was her U.S. publisher.

On books originally published in Britain, that publisher gets exclusive rights in Europe. However, on books originally published in the U.S., American publishers consider Europe part of the Open Market. Naturally, UK publishers object.

When the European Union was established in 1992, Britain began to argue that--since Britain was a part of the EU--all of continental Europe should now be off-limits to U.S. publishers in the same way that Britain is. Naturally, American publishing houses disagreed. During the 2006 Book Expo America in Washington, D.C., there was a panel on May 19th that discussed the issue. Here's the panel description from the BEA brochure:

Many American publishers are claiming as Open Market countries that have traditionally been exclusive to British publishers. Meanwhile, as they fight what they see as the American encroachment, British publishers are trying to make the European Union (among other places) their exclusive territory. What used to be a rote issue has now become a complicated imbroglio with "territories" that vary from house to house and from deal to deal--all of which directly affects the sale of rights on both sides of the Atlantic.

The AAR Contracts Committee has invited major publishing executives from the US and the UK, American and British literary agents, and international sales experts to this BEA panel. Both sides of the Atlantic will explain their positions and the ramifications so everyone involved can have a much better sense of how to navigate this new quagmire.

Tim Hely Hutchinson of Hachette Livre UK argued for the UK position while Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster took the opposite view, charging that the British were engaged in a "land grab in continental Europe."

Michael Cader, editor of Publishers Lunch, reported in his May 19th edition that the real issue is that British books cost too much and customers with access to the Internet now know it. He said: "The internet resists artificial territorial barriers that support economic inequalities . . . and protectionism imposed on physical stores will only increase the market share of online sellers -- yet another thing causing UK book retailers woe."

In June of last year, the New York Times reported that five European booksellers and distributors jumped into the fray by "sending an open letter to publishers in Britain and the United States opposing the latest British push."

The booksellers and distributors came from Amsterdam, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Lisbon and Paris, and they argued against protectionism and for cultural diversity.

"Citing the importance of consumer choice, the threat of increased Internet sales and concern that without competition British publishers will simply raise prices, the booksellers "urge all publishers involved to strongly reject any effort to restrict competition in the market."

This argument has suddenly heated up again. Earlier this month, one international publishing house announced its own compromise decision. I'll talk about that tomorrow.

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