Selling Ebooks Globally

When I go shopping online for ebooks to buy and read, one of my great frustrations is finding a book I want to buy and then getting a message from the online retailer that I cannot buy it because I live in Canada, even when I can often buy the print version of the same book at my local bookstore!

This is more than annoying

To describe this as annoying is an understatement. The great promise of the Internet has always been that it allows us to be connected globally. I can read friends’ blogs on their servers in Europe, Africa, and Asia. I can communicate with family members scattered around the globe, and follow the vacation activities of some family members currently visiting Cambodia. Later this month I look forward to tracking one of my (grown) children’s adventures scuba diving off the coast of Belize.

I regularly read Die Stern (Germany) and The Economist (UK) online, and follow Hong Kong news on the Singtao website. The Guardian has excellent book reviews. But, far too often, I cannot buy the ebooks I want to buy.

A little history

When I first became involved in publishing in the 1960s, printed books were very expensive to ship between countries, and they still are. Publishers either bulk-shipped titles to those countries where they thought sales would be good, or made contractual arrangements for individual titles to be printed in those countries.

The old system worked moderately well. If you published a truly best-selling author, you would make arrangements for her book to be printed and sold in the larger English markets, such as the U.K., Canada, and Australia.

Best-selling authors and their agents took advantage of the system, withholding foreign rights from their contracts, and if a new book became a home market success, they negotiated new contracts for the book country by country.

If you happened to live in a part of the world not deemed important by English language publishers, you either waited for a trip to take you to a major country where you bought lots of books to bring home, or you relied on local pirates to produce and sell you in back alley shops reproductions of unpredictable quality.

Clinging to the past

Digital books of course cost next to nothing to ship. There is no physical obstacle to a publisher selling an ebook to anyone who wants to buy it, anywhere on the planet. Some American publishers are doing this and they tell me that in many cases their sales to customers outside North America now exceed their domestic sales.

Many publishers are mentally stuck in the old system, selling ebooks the same way they sell print. I believe some would like to change, but they say the obstacles are now authors and their agents, who prefer the old way of doing things.

Napster?

Remember when Napster wreaked havoc on the old music business? It did so because music companies did not want to adjust to either the global realities of the Internet or the demands of consumers who were tired of buying CDs with one or two “good” tracks and a bunch of marginal “filler” tracks.

Consumers flocked to Napster and other sites which supplied what they wanted. In the process, consumers set aside concerns about downloading illegal copies of music. Bulletin boards and discussion groups in that period were full of people saying they felt the music industry was trying to rip them off with high prices on lousy CDs, so they felt no compunction about responding in kind and ripping off the music industry.

The music industry responded with increasingly draconian efforts to protect the CD business. Digital Rights Management (DRM) software to “lock” digital music files to one player device made consumers more angry because many consumers owned multiple such devices (as well as multiple CD players).

Music industry sleuths tracked illegal downloads and filed mammoth lawsuits against alleged downloaders. Enough of the lawsuits turned out to be filed against very young children and Internet-enabled devices like photocopiers where someone’s printout of an email about a favorite song was misconstrued to indicate an illegal download, that the music industry lost a lot more credibility and sales.

Today you can purchase single tracks or entire music albums online, most without strong DRM, thanks not to the music industry but to the efforts of Amazon and Apple. Napster is gone (yes, there are still pirate music sites) and the music industry is making money again.

Restrictions fail

Limiting the sale of ebooks to specific geographic territories is in my view a bad mistake. Just as it did for the music industry, applying silly restrictions on consumers encourages piracy.

We already have a stellar example in the book business. J.K. Rowling, author of the wildly successful Harry Potter novels, famously told her publisher she did not want any of them released as ebooks. The predictable result: every Harry Potter book released to date has appeared in pirated form on servers around the globe within days of the hardback edition release. Studies have shown they have consistently been among the top 10 illegal downloads each year.

I am not for a moment saying that releasing the Harry Potter novels as ebooks would have prevented their being pirated. What I am saying is, J.K. Rowling and her publisher have lost an extraordinary number of potential sales by the restriction. I am quite certain that a reasonable percentage of those who downloaded the pirate copies would have bought legitimate copies, had they been available.

Selling to consumers

The fundamental problem in all this, I think, is that publishers and many authors are unaccustomed to selling to consumers. Publishers tend to think of bookstores, not individual people, as their customers and are having difficulty coming to grips with the consumer-centric Internet.

I feel in many ways that we at Self-Counsel Press are fortunate. Because our roots were in providing consumers with “do it yourself” legal titles, we have understood all along that our customers are individual people. We registered the self-counsel.com domain on November 20, 1966 and have been online, with books and kits for sale to consumers, since April 1967. Amazon preceded us by two years; very few publishers did.

As we start making ebooks available for sale on our website, we will be selling them globally. It is the right thing to do in the global village created by the Internet and I believe it will be to the benefit of both our customers and the authors who work with us.

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