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US, UK Turf Wars Could Seriously Impact Authors

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June 1 – June 8, 2006 Edition

US, UK Turf Wars
Could Seriously
Impact Authors

NEW YORK, NY/5/30/2006—Perhaps the hottest topic to emerge from the recent BookExpo America exhibition in Washington D.C. is the growing problem of turf wars between U.S. and UK Publishers. The battle over several complex issues has far-reaching financial implications for publishers, agents, and authors.

At issue are so-called “open market” rights to export English language books into Continental Europe. In the open market situation, both US and UK publishers have the non-exclusive right to distribute books into non-English speaking territories around the world. So in cases where an author has different US and UK publishers, this means that a traveler or native speaker in, for example, Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, South America, or any other country where English is not the primary language, can frequently find both a US and UK edition of an author’s work available for sale.

Now, UK publishers want to make Continental Europe an exclusive distribution territory, claiming that the British book trade is under siege from lower-priced export editions that will leak from Europe back into the UK. Their rationale is that under current European Community economic law, which encourages a unified, barrier-free market, once a book or other good is sold in one country, it may legally be sold in all the other EU countries.

US publishers dispute this, pointing out that this concern was raised nearly 15 years ago and that for reasons of cost and practicality has yet to become problematic. They further point out that the dangers of these books leaking back into Britain is just as great from their own editions as from US exports.

Another reason that US publishers seek status quo in Europe is the overall importance of Europe to their international business. With Europe usually accounting for 50% of an export edition’s sales, publishers could not afford to actually produce an export edition if they couldn’t include European sales as part of their financial calculation.

The US publishers also point out that the English language export editions frequently seed the market, growing an audience for an author and eventually enabling the publisher and author to sell translation rights to their work.

Finally, they point out that the European marketplace is diverse, and serves both British and American travelers and expatriates, as well as non-native speakers, who frequently have stylistic preferences for either a British or American edition. Making Europe an exclusive territory would then harm the overall sales of an authors work.

Agents and authors are caught in the middle of this skirmish, in which some UK publishers have threatened to back out of deals if their terms weren’t met.

Publishers on both sides of the argument butted heads on a panel at BookExpo. In that session, Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group President Carolyn Reidy said agents should ask themselves whether an exclusive grant of European distribution helps or hinders the author. She added that undoubtedly it is a hindrance, and that the only ones who benefit from an exclusive European market would be the British publishers.

Reidy said US editions sold in Europe have not been “seeping back into the UK.” Reidy said the UK publishers are “engaged in a land grab in continental Europe based on the thinnest of legal and business pretenses.” She suggested that the core English-language markets, such as the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand, where publishers invest money, editorial and marketing efforts, should remain exclusive; non-English-language markets should remain open. The result remains to be determined.

In a global marketplace, books deals will become increasingly complex. Thus writers will be best served by trying to find literary agents who are knowledgeable not only in the domestic market but in the world market as well.

The BookExpo session was moderated by agent Brian de Fiore.