Digitization has made circumventing publishers’ market restrictions much easier. In the olden days British publishers would sell their books to the UK, the Commonwealth, and probably Europe. They would sell rights to a US publisher, who might have the rights to sell in North America or just USA, Canada staying with the rest of the Commonwealth to be serviced from Britain. If you lived in Vancouver, you’d have to wait for the book you wanted to be shipped over from Britain to the Canadian distributor. If you lived in Seattle you’d be getting it from a US publisher, not necessarily any sooner. Pricing would be different, as no doubt would be spelling. A short drive across the border would allow you to smuggle the “other” edition, a trivial loss to either publisher. Attempts are made by e-retailers to abide by the rights negotiated by publishers, but as variations get more and more complicated, this becomes ever harder. You can tell the non-local books on Amazon.com: they are the ones with funny prices — a direct conversion from the foreign currency price. These are not so much “smuggled” books — they are likely to be editions which do not have a local publisher, and so can only be sourced from overseas.

The Economist issue of 10 September 2011 has some troublesome things to say about the book industry. In a leader headed Disappearing ink: the transformation of the book industry they say “They [publishers] also need to become more efficient. Digital books can be distributed globally, but publishers persist in dividing the world into territories with separate editorial staffs. In the digital age it is daft to take months or even years to get a book to market.”

Dividing the world into territories is hard (as well as daft) in a digital world. Even when it comes to buying physical books, computers have made shopping around the norm rather than the exception for big retailers. Companies like Amazon don’t just order books from the last place they bought them from. They have computer algorithms which assess the most advantageous place to buy from. The requisition for a book will pass through a cascade of options: they might order from the publisher direct; they might order from one or two wholesalers; they might print the book themselves; they might get the book print-on-demand from one of their wholesalers; they might get it from inventory at one of their warehouses. The option they chose will depend on several factors, including what else is on the order. If it is for several books all of which are in inventory in one of their warehouses that’s where they’d go, but if one books is not in stock, the whole order might go to the wholesaler who has them all in stock, or where most are in stock and the others can be printed as POD. These cascades are much more sophisticated than the efforts of publishers to channel orders into a particular routing.

An example: a US book was offered at an unnaturally low price, in error, for a week or two on the UK site of a print-on-demand printer. (They had entered the manufacturing cost rather than the real sterling retail price.) A US book dealer, working through its UK affiliate, noticed this and bought a large number of books at the manufacturing cost (plus discount), exported them to the US, where they offered them at about half the publisher’s retail price. Another example: a publisher bought US trade rights for a book. The seller of the rights retains the right to sell into the US educational market. Large retailers have expressed their reluctance to order the trade edition because the book is available, cheaper, from the educational publisher. The publishers may agree that this edition will sell here and that one there: The cascade knows better. Additionally, the education publisher has been selling quantities of paperbacks to a dealer who rebinds them as hardback and sells them in the US market, at a price slightly lower than the trade paperback price: is that an infringement of anyone’s rights? Maybe, but like most publishing squabbles, the amounts of money at stake in any individual instance make legal remedies more expensive than the revenue lost.