Nowadays the publisher’s traditional market begins to look like it means less and less. Crudely we used to carve up the world market for English language books into the USA, the British traditional market (by and large the old Empire) and the rest of the world. The digital world has made this harder to discern and enforce. As an example, if a book is published in Britain in late 2020, and US rights are sold to an American publisher who won’t bring out the book till the second half of 2021, then in the interim any US enquiries about the book at Amazon will elicit an offer of the UK edition. You can recognize these occurrences by the odd retail price quoted: no publisher is going to price their book at $23.67 — that’s just the result of a conversion from sterling using the current exchange rate. Frustratingly Amazon maintains that their policy in this area is entirely algorithm-driven, and they will direct all enquiries wherever they come from to the best-selling version. They always want to be able to say they offer the customer the best deal, even if as in this case it’s low-level illegal.

Obviously the US publisher, who has paid something for a license to publish the book in the USA will not be delighted to see their main customer referring potential purchasers to an edition unlicensed for their market. This redirection will continue even when the US publisher’s edition goes on sale — it probably won’t have sold more copies at Amazon than the other edition for some time. Because the system is all algorithm-driven Amazon claims that there’s nothing they can do about it. Until the US edition has sold more than the UK edition it won’t come up first in response to an Amazon search. You can usually find the missing US edition by digging on Amazon’s site, but it’s far from obvious and you have to know it’s there so you can search for it — which probably means it’s only the angry American publisher whose doing it, reacting to an early rave review in The Wall Street Journal, rather than a book buyer just looking for a good read. Infuriating to see the sales resulting from a review you managed to achieve all going to another publisher. The situation is also complicated by secondary sellers on Amazon. Of course, one has to admit that the opposite effect is in operation if the US edition is published before the UK one, which probably means nobody’s going to take any action on this. For the big internationally owned trade houses there’s large amount of one hand washing the other, making the cost of a lawsuit even less appealing. Smaller publishers are the real losers. Moral: always publish your edition simultaneously with overseas editions. Yeah. Just try that one!

I aim not to reference every one of Richard Charkin’s monthly posts at Publishing Perspectives — but I rarely succeed. They are almost always relevant and interesting. Here he discusses territoriality in the context of Brexit. His solution is “It’s about time that trade book publishers took the plunge and offered their authors genuine worldwide support through their extensive infrastructures. And it’s about time that literary agents focused on their authors’ careers rather than the next big advance.” Sounds good, and it really is a bit anachronistic to base your business on agreements which have their origin in a world in which manufacturing (and publishing) were much more centralized, and goods used to be transferred around the world in ships, taking months en route.

We live in a world where online connectivity makes national or regional market restrictions wildly difficult to control. We might wish to move to the idea of a single market where the publisher of a book is the publisher of that book regardless of where the publisher may be based or the buyer located. However the main losers under such a system would be authors and agents. If you can sell foreign rights for your book for a certain sum, you get to bank that money even if the overseas editions don’t sell as well as expected. The agent ditto. Plus the agent gets to demonstrate to the author their negotiating chops by landing a good deal, which of course leads to more business for them.

Would a single worldwide market impact translations? If you are the publisher of the book, would you be the publisher in all languages? Would you necessarily be in any position to serve the market in all countries? Publishers exist, let us remember, to serve authors and readers by bringing them together. As long as selling local rights earns an author more money — as I suspect it usually will — then trade publishers’ desires for a worldwide license are likely to remain just pipe dreams. Parenthetically one might note that lots and lots of books are sold to publishers as assignments of world rights. Academic and university press habitually work this way. In some cases the publisher who has been granted worldwide rights may sublease a local edition in this or that market.

Here, at Jane Friedman’s blog, two agents discuss the issue of foreign rights and the international book market. The book business is irrevocably international. Agents thrive, as should authors, by balkanizing this international market for trade books. The problem of a few lost sales for a publisher doesn’t really affect author or agent — so the status quo will surely remain.

See also Traditional market breakdownBreakdown of the traditional market.