image Who needs Dan Brown to dream up conspiracy theories? Here’s what may be a real conspiracy—against readers of e-books.

And perhaps there’s a Luddite element to it, a lingering eagerness among certain literary agents and publishing tycoons to stymie the new medium.

The paradox of geo-bans

I’m talking geographical restrictions crippling e-books.

Here’s the book business encouraging customer loyalty to stores. And then you find you can’t buy a much-hyped bestseller from your favorite retailer. Furthermore, what if you live in the middle of Africa and don’t even know of a geo-correct e-store to patronize?

Side effect of geo-DRM: Piracy

A recipe for piracy? I think so. With such eagerness to block the Geographically Undesirable from buying legal copies, I’m hardly surprised to learn from Mike Cane of the pirated edition seen here.

If geo-DRM prevails, pirates will come across to many consumers as friends. Granted, there’s the risk of a virus. But how many pirates uses DRM? Want books without gotchas? Then buy illegally. I’m anti-pirate, but how can one not reach that conclusion?

Newest wrinkle, reportedly: Geo-bans affecting already-bought books

Wait. It’s gets worse. From Ficbot, in Toronto, Canada, comes word that “several people at MobileRead are reporting some disturbing news in the area of geographical restrictions.

“Not only is Fictionwise closing the loopholes that allowed people to get around the restrictions (e.g., use of gift cards) but they are now apparently blocking people from downloading books they bought in the past (before restrictions were imposed) but which are now restricted.

“One poster claims that about eight percent of his bookshelf representing about $300 is now blocked.

”If true, this is a serious claim.

“If something is now restricted and they want to prevent someone from buying it for geographical reasons, that’s stupid, but if they have to follow the rules, so be it. But if they are imposing these restrictions retroactively on books people bought several years ago, that is a whole other ballgame. That’s as bad as Amazon’s 1984 fiasco.

“I always thought Fictionwise was a company with integrity and loved how accessible Scott and Steve [Pendergrast} were. Now, I am being shunted to PR people when  I have legitimate questions, these PR people are ignoring me, and a legitimate issue has come up which I cannot investigate.”

In fairness to Fictionwise, these geographical restrictions are at odds with the past character of the company, now owned by Barnes & Noble; and it’s oh so possible that powerful Luddites or semi-Luddites in the publishing industry have left Fictionwise and B&N with no choice but to impose retroactive restrictions.

U.S. customers now suffering as well

Think you’re safe from geo-DRM and other geo-restrictions just because you live in the U.S.? Sorry. You’re wrong. A BeBook owner in Seattle writes:

“Penguin titles I have assumed are universally available in both the U.K. and the U.S. (and around the world). Now I’ve tried to order the Penguin volume of all the essays of Montaigne, which is available in the EPub format from W.H. Smith (from which source I’ve purchased many e-titles formerly) and I’m told that geographical restrictions prevent W.H. Smith from selling me that title. (The Penguin paper volume of the same title has been readily available for sale in the U.S., and significantly discounted, since 1992.) Why would Penguin impose this restriction? Aren’t they interested in selling their product? Ok, you guys and gals in Australia and New Zealand, you have a new ally in me (as if that’s worth anything).”

Literary agents: Leading villains?

Could the ultimate villains be literary agents, who thrive off the complexity of the publishing industry? Might they be at odds with the interests of authors, not just readers? Literary agents serve many functions, and in the case of p-books, I can certainly appreciate the need to divide up the planet. But e-books are a different story.

As some have suggested, why not give up on the idea of geo-rights and focus instead on language rights?

There is still a need for literary agents and large publishers, but if both groups insist on geo-restrictions, they will only worsen the pain of a transition to digital. Most of the very earliest sales of the Brown book may have been electronic. Now, with e-books on the cusp becoming more than a tiny speck of the publishing business, think of the potential financial loss to authors, publishers and, yes, agents, if the industry is so oblivious to the difference between electrons and atoms.

Note: I invite B&N PR people or others involved to give their side—just as Ficbot had hoped they would do. No need to go through me. The TeleRead comment area beckons. I’m especially eager to know if, as I suspect, publishers are the reason for the extra zeal against the Geographically Undesirable. And are literary agents the sources of the original pressure?

Related: A note that TeleRead Co-Editor Paul Biba received from a geo-ban victim who is giving up on paper books. What some literary agents want? If so, tough luck. The e-genie is already out of the bottle. Also see reports that Fictionwise is tracking IP addresses to determine location. True? I’d welcome comment from Fictionwise or B&N.