Ebook distribution is, as I said in my last post, a massive, complex problem that will probably never have a simple one-size-fits-all solution. Nonetheless, in this post I’ll try and cover some of the ways this problem may be overcome, at least in part.
We have to assume, looking forward, that publishers are unlikely to voluntarily relinquish control of their territorial copyright licenses and give consumers access to ebooks overseas if they don’t have to. However, the loosening of restrictions may come about organically and involuntarily. This isn’t just because consumers always want what they cannot have so will go to any means to get it (ie. piracy, or spoofing Amazon’s or Apple’s servers into thinking you’re in the United States – both of which are solutions I won’t be covering in this post). It’s also because, at the moment, the ebook market is vanishingly small and is easy for publishers to control. But it won’t always be.
Unlike with paper books, publishers in Australia have contracts with ebook retailers like Apple and Amazon. These contracts specify how files are to be provided to the retailer and who the retailer can sell the ebooks to. Most publishers in Australia have only a handful of digital people overlooking this process, and they are in direct contact with retailers, have intimate knowledge of which books are being sold where and are often dealing with manual conversion of ebook metadata (the information used by retailers to confirm that they’re allowed to sell an ebook in a particular copyright territory, as well as information about the title and author). In the next year or so, many publishers will begin (or may have already begun) using the services of digital distributors and digital warehouses, companies whose sole job is to manage the fiddly task of providing ebook files and the related metadata to multiple retailers. As more and more retailers and ebooks are launched it will become more difficult for publishers to monitor which book is selling in which copyright territory. Although the contracts between the publishers and the retailers will remain, it’s very likely that the level of direct control will begin to become more diffuse. We may even see niche genre-based ebook retailers spring up who will be making sure their international readers have access to any ebook they have the right to buy.
This is, of course, not a permanent or particularly elegant solution. There’s no guarantee there, and it relies absolutely on publishers getting lazy about their job after the market settles down and things become more complex. A more comprehensive legal basis for this will be required, especially for ebooks that are released overseas that do not have an Australian publisher yet (or at all). Currently, unless their overseas publisher specifically tries to sell that ebook into Australia, it will not be available to Australian readers at all. This is not the fault of Australian publishers, as they have nothing to do with these unbought books. The two groups that need to sort out this problem are the Government and ebook retailers.
It’s clear that the 30/90 day parallel importation restrictions are going to need an overhaul for ebooks. Currently they’re not working at all. If the rights to publish a paper book in Australia are not sold, then within 30 days of its publication overseas, an Australian retailer can import that book from wherever it is published and sell it in stores. This has happened with many books that have gone on to be massive sellers here in Australia, not just tiny little books nobody has heard of. Twilight, for example, wasn’t published in Australia until after the 30 days, so any Australian retailer can import the first book from the US in bulk and sell it to readers. In practice, however, this is not what happens, as the Australian publisher usually provides better terms for the sale of paper books than an overseas publisher. (They may be more expensive from the Australian publisher, but they might be bought as sale and return, for example.) The ebook of Twilight, on the other hand, even though it should have the same rights as the paper book, is only available from the Australian publisher. The legal status of such ebooks needs to be nailed down so that retailers know what they can and cannot do. Thankfully, this is likely a problem that is already getting attention from the Book Industry Strategy Group, a committee of industry experts put together by the Government that is due to make recommendations early next year.
Nonetheless, this is largely a technical limitation at the moment, not a legal one. So it will be incumbent on ebook retailers to make sure they become the consumer’s advocates and ensure ebooks whose rights have not been sold in Australia (or are not protected by parallel importation restrictions) are available to readers here. Unfortunately there are very few ebook retailers in Australia, and none who seem to be taking the initiative in this regard. However, you can be reassured by the fact that when Australian ebook retailers do start to spring up in greater numbers, we will start to see this fine-tuning of ebook availability. It will require vigilance and an awareness of what ebook readers want – just like stores that stock paper books keep an eye out for what their readers are looking for.
Finally, looking far forward in the future, we can hope that many more ebooks will be sold with global rights and that the revenue will be shared between publishers. This is already happening with initiatives like HarperCollins’s Harper Voyager imprint, which aims to bring their entire international list under the one global umbrella. It’s a utopia for ebook readers, where every ebook is available anywhere in the world, and it’s great news for authors as well, who will now make their books available internationally from the moment their book is published in their home country. Nonetheless, this is not a very reasonable prospect for older backlist books – there are more than 130 million books out there, and each one was signed with a different contract, with different publishers all over the world.
So there we have it. A great many solutions to one super massive, complex problem. I’d appreciate any feedback or questions to clarify the information in the last three posts. We will be returning to our ordinary programming after this.