Forward to next post: Cory Doctorow’s important quibble to my territories explanation
Over on Scalzi’s Whatever, much fun has been being had in the aftermath of the release of Redshirts. (An excellent book, by the way).
But there’s been some rumbling, because not everyone in the world has been able to buy it yet. And, as usual, there’s a good deal of confusion about precisely why.
So Patrick has been explaining in the comment thread.
The entity that published REDSHIRTS last week, Tor Books, has the exclusive right to sell the book in the English language in the US, Canada, and the Philippines, and a non-exclusive right to sell it in English in all other countries of the world-_excluding_ the UK and a long list of Commonwealth and former-Commonwealth countries. A list which includes South Africa.
John and his agent could have sold us the “World English” package of rights, which would entitle us to publish the book in English everywhere-we would certainly have been willing to offer for that-but instead they opted to take the slightly riskier path of selling us rights only in our core market, reserving the “UK-and-a-bunch-of-Commonwealth-and-former-Commonwealth-countries” package to themselves, in order to try to sell it separately to a British publisher. (This is a slightly riskier path for most genre writers who aren’t top-level New York Times bestsellers, because British publishers don’t really buy very much SF and fantasy from the US below that sales level. This wasn’t always the case but it certainly is now.) After a period during which I imagine John’s agent shopped the book around to various British publishers (I don’t know the details because it’s, literally, not my business), they accepted an offer from Gollancz. However, that deal was concluded just a month or two ago, so it was vanishingly unlikely that Gollancz was going to get their edition out simultaneously with ours. I believe their edition is scheduled for November.
(Footnote here: An exact inverse of this situation is why Tor’s edition of Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut novel THE QUANTUM THIEF appeared in May 2011, several months after Gollancz’s edition in September 2010.)
The more interesting question you ask is: Why can you, in South Africa, buy a copy of the US REDSHIRTS hardcover from (for instance) bn.com in the US, but you can’t buy the US e-book edition? Why do online retailers pay attention to your address and credit card when assessing your eligibility to buy an e-book, while being willing to ship any edition of any print book anywhere?
The answer is a little arcane, but bear with me. The fact of the matter is that, when it comes to traditional printed books, neither the retail booksellers nor their customers (that’s you) are party to the contracts between John and his various publishers. Our contract with John says that _we_ won’t sell our editions of his book outside the territories in which John grants us exclusive and non-exclusive rights. Gollancz’s contract with John says that _they_ won’t sell their editions of his book outside the territories in which John grants them exclusive and non-exclusive rights. But if Amazon buys a bunch of copies in the US and someone in South Africa says “Hi, here’s my credit card, send me one,” no contractual agreement has been violated. Amazon owns those books, not us. They can do what they want with them, including selling them to people in South Africa, Shropshire, or the moons of Jupiter. Amazon is not John Scalzi, Tor, or Gollancz. You are not John Scalzi, Tor, or Gollancz.
(Another footnote: It has been perfectly possible and legal for regular people in the US to buy British editions for decades longer than the Internet has existed. For years one of the absolutely standard ads in the back pages of the NEW YORKER was a little panel ad offering “BRITISH BOOKS BY PHONE.” There’s nothing new about this.)
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.
(Two footnotes. First, yes, everyone knows that there’s a limit to how thoroughly anyone can police these restrictions. Get a VPN connection that makes you look like you’re online from a country where we have the rights, and a credit card with a US or Canadian address, and you can probably buy the ebook with no problem. Second, the agreements I referred to concerning ebook sales, between us and the online ebook retailers, have nothing in particular to do with any current arguments over “agency models” versus other models of ebook retailing. These restrictions were in place before the “agency model” and they’re in place now.)
Does this sound like a lot of bullshit gobbledegook? Probably. Is it true? Absolutely. Did it happen because everyone rolled out of bed one morning and said “Let’s make global ebook retailing baroquely complicated, because annoying our customers is fun”? No. Does the book industry need to be rethinking how it handles this stuff? Yep. Is it? I think it’s starting to. Meanwhile, you wanted to know why-and that long explanation is the “why.”
The conversation continues in the thread, with a much lower level of entitled anti-Big Publishing aggression than many of these discussions contain. As a result, actual information is being conveyed, and people are coming to understand the book industry better. Worth a read.