Territorial restrictions continue to frustrate e-book customers

images1_thumb[1]Ebooknewser has a post pondering the annoying region restrictions on many e-books, quoting from a Kindle forum discussion thread in which American customers vented frustration over not being able to order UK-only e-books for enjoyment on their Kindles.

The discussion brings up the “point of sale” dichotomy, in which an e-book’s point of sale is considered to be the customer’s computer but a print book’s is considered to be the store. “Stupid law,” a poster named Cynthia wrote. “The point of sale should be the location of the seller not the buyer but that’s the way it is right now.”

I have never yet been able to determine why exactly it is the law. When I asked about it on vark a number of months ago, neither of the answers I got was satisfactory, but they both independently suggested that this must have grown out of case law—precedents set by judges’ prior decisions in court cases.

Ken K. wrote:

In the case of paper book, like any other good, the place where any activity is to take place is the place where the book presently is—i.e., the warehouse. In the case of the e-books, however, there is no warehouse—just a server. U.S. case law has pretty much dismissed the location of a server as a relevant consideration, since servers could be placed just about anywhere without the user/purchaser recognizing any difference.

It would be nice to know exactly how those laws came to be; perhaps it might lead to suggestions as to how to overturn them. If they could even be overturned.

We’ve had a number of spirited discussions on this issue in comment threads for articles over the last few months—this one in particular, which discussed the UK Publishers Association’s stance on the importance of territorial enforcement. Author/publisher advocates such as Frode Aleksandersen and Marilynn Byerly pointed out that stores ignoring territorial restrictions leads to loss of one-time advance fees for publishing in other territories, and the writer loses control over his work.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is that there are some authors (such as Paul Carr, who I mentioned just the other day) who can’t find American publishers for their works so can’t sell them over here even if they want to. (As I pointed out, this led to Carr giving away his previous work for free when he couldn’t find anyone who would sell it for him.)

And meanwhile, there are sites like Jane Litte’s LostBookSales.com, where people can report e-books they would have bought if they were available—currently up to 1,173 lost sales tallied.

Whatever the cause of this obnoxious limitation, we’ve had e-books in some form for well over a decade now. Why on earth can’t the publishing industry figure out a way to solve this problem and let people who want to buy books buy them? As the pasted LostBookSales report indicates, people who are denied the opportunity will often just resort to piracy, and that does not earn the author or publisher anything.

8 Comments on Territorial restrictions continue to frustrate e-book customers

  1. As far as I know, there is no “law” that provides for geographic restrictions on ebook sales. There are only contracts between authors, agents, publishers, and book sellers.
    The root of the problem is that we are still in a mixed paper and electronic book situation. If/when paper books fade into history, there will be no point to geographic restrictions, and they will disappear.
    Today, however, it still makes sense. Consider an American author who sells world paper and ebook rights to an American publisher. Will that publisher really print and ship paper books to every country in the world? Probably not. So the author loses royalties on sales of paper books in distant parts of the world.
    So imagine that the author sells paper book rights to the American market, and ebook rights to the entire world, to an American publisher. Now he tries to sell European paper book rights only to a European publisher. That publisher might well say ‘My paper book sales have already been undercut by ebook sales of the American edition. Its not worth it any more for me to buy the paper rights only, So, no, I won’t buy your book.’
    So, we get geographic restrictions on ebook sales. It’s very annoying, but it is logical *in the market as it is today.*
    As ebook sales continue to grow, more authors will be willing to sell one publisher world ebook rights, and to write off the possibility of selling paper book rights to foreign publishers.

  2. Gary, maybe in 10 years time you can make that kind of argument, but ebooks is still a fraction of the sales of paper books. Not picking up rights to a book for paper publishing because someone else has the ebook rights these days is well.. just plain dumb. If a publisher makes that argument, what they’re really doing has nothing to do with profits on the sales of the paper books, but instead a way for them to spite the author/agent for not offering ebook rights. It’s all about pressure.

  3. My perception of the reason why this total mess has come about is this. The Publishers and Authors and Agents were warned many moons ago of the coming digital book age. They ignored the warning. Then a few years ago that the time had arrived. They ignored it.
    This resulted in no preparation for the world of eBook either in terms of signing geographical contracts or, for that matter, in almost every other business aspect of the eBook commercial model.
    It is inevitable that there are millions of books that were published prior to, say, 2000 where geographical rights were carved up and sold off in an attempt to maximise earnings by the Author/Agent. It is inevitable, imho, that these limitations have to be stuck to until a resolution is found.

    However there is no excuse for the Publishing industry overall to not have tackled this whole issue several years ago and to have found a solution. I do not believe it is rocket science to have negotiated an industry wide agreement. It would have taken time but we would have it now if they had started when they should have.

    I do hope, because I am not in the author scene, that ALL Authors are now being advised correctly by their unions and their advisors to make sure their contracts have caught up with the state of the industry today and how it will be in the next 20 years. I have no sympathy for anyone who hasn’t done so at least since 2007.

    Note: The Captcha seems to have changed to see-through characters today and I have had to trawl through about 20 (!) to find one I could recognise !!!

  4. Looking at this from a librarian’s point of view can shed some light on subject I hope. I am working with OverDrive to setup my library to provide ebooks, eaudiobooks, and other einformation. While working with one of their techs I learned that because of contract restrictions imposed by some publishers only people who live in my funding area may download titles from those publishers. This sounds logical because a publisher does not want to sell (I emphasize the word sell) their product to a library (customer) and have the library (customer) put it out for the whole world. However, what the publisher has not thought about is that some of my customers (and therefor theirs) do not live within my “funding area.” They pay me a fee equivalent to what I get in tax funding from the residents who do live in my funding area in order to use the library.

    Now some publishers may say “so what”. Here is the so what… That customer of mine is going to be upset! They are going to want to blame someone for not getting fair treatment. In order to not be the “bad guy” I am going to explain to them that it is because of the way the publisher requires that our contract be done that they cannot have what they want. I live next door to them and have watched over their children for years. My question to the publishers that write their contracts this way is; “Who are they going to be angry with?”

  5. @Gary this ignores the tail effect – something not possible with non-digital media. Personally I believe a lot of this is supporting the existing traditional distribution aspects of the publishing arms. Regional publishing offices and local agreements they may have.

    Local retailers and publishers may wish either to “prevent” digital sales in order to support their going-out-of-fashion business models, higher margins or in order for crap local online bookstores.

    There are maybe 10-20 newly released books in the last year I didn’t buy because of these restrictions – lose for the customer and lose for the author. Sticking to publishers my Baen who have a clue.

  6. Try living in a smaller country whose buying power is just not worth consideration by the big boys.

    I live in Australia (where Amazon has no presence) and was contemplating buying an e-reader. But until these ridiculous restrictions are sorted out I’m sticking to traditional books.

    I did some exercises. I can buy a Kindle from the US and have it shipped to me. There is an Australian seller but the price of buying direct from him is about double. Ok so if I buy a kindle I HAVE to buy from Amazon.com. I can’t buy from Amazon.uk.

    I read a particular genre – crime fiction. So I did a test search a couple of well known authors and a couple of lesser known ones. I only found half a dozen books I had access to and a couple of them I’d already read.

    I then tried a non-Amazon bookseller in the UK. Same thing happened. Plenty of books I wanted but I wasn’t allowed to purchase any of them because I wasn’t in the UK.

    What of Australian e-books you ask? Forgeddaboutdit. The two biggest chains in the country (Angus and Robertson and Borders), both owned buy the same company (whichever politician approved that take over should be shot) have just been put in the hands of liquidators. Right now the future is uncertain – they aren’t honouring gift vouchers for online purchases apparently. I looked at another book chain (Dymocks) and their e-book crime fiction catalogue is a mighty 300 books.

    So no-ebooks for me for the forseeable.
    If anyone does know a workaround so I can access more books I’d l love to know about it.

  7. Well, Sunnie, my experience from Italy is exactly the same! There is someone here starting selling Italian e-books (not in kindle format, of course (!) only drm-adobe), but if I want to read an e-book in English, or French for that matter, I cannot buy it – not even from countries in the EC, under the Shengen treaty.
    A British person can come to Italy without showing her documents, I can buy everything from the UK without paying custom, but I cannot buy an e-book…

  8. Makes sense that it should be where it’s going to be used.

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