Whenever I announce a book, I get grousing from people who can’t legally buy or access that book, mostly because it’s not available in whatever country they are in. To explain the details of this, and to give myself a document to which I may refer people when it comes up again, allow me to explain now how this all works.
I live in [insert country here]. Why won’t your publisher let me buy the book here?
Probably because legally, “my publisher” can’t.
First, be aware that “my publisher,” changes from country to country, and that even in the United States I have more than one publisher. In the United States, books of mine still in print are published by Tor, by Subterranean Press, by Rough Guides (a division of Penguin), and by Portable Press. Worldwide, I have over twenty publishers, each focused on one territory and/or language.
When most people think of “my publisher,” they’re thinking of Tor. Well, generally speaking, when Tor buys a book from me, what it’s buying is a license to publish the book, in English, in the US and Canada. I usually retain the rights to sell the book in the rest of the world, including in English in the UK and Commonwealth countries (excluding Canada).
Tor doesn’t typically have the right to sell the book, in any form, anywhere else on the planet. So they quite naturally don’t. There are ways to get around this, even without pirating the book, but Tor itself quite naturally sticks to its contract to avoid a) voiding the contract, b) pissing me off.
(Note: See the update below, where my Tor editor makes a correction to the above struck-through assertion.)
Why don’t you let your publisher sell the book in [insert country here]?
Because I want to generate as much money as possible from my writing, since this is how I make my living. Typically speaking I make more money by piecing out the rights to various publishers than I would make letting one publisher sell the books in every territory, both because that second publisher will offer me advance money (which usually is a good deal for the writer) and because that second publisher is better tuned into its own market and will make a better case for the book with the local readership.
It’s not to say I won’t sell further rights to the same publisher if I think it there’s good reason to do so, but at the very least it makes sense to try to sell local rights first.
Your publisher has the right to sell the book in [insert country here]. Why won’t it?
You’d have to ask them. If I had to guess I would expect it’s that often selling a work in a new country — and/or through a distribution arm specific to that country — is more work on the back end than people expect and the publisher has to ask whether it will be worth the time/effort/money to do so. Yes, that sucks. Sorry about that.
You could just put up an electronic version on your site and then I could buy it, even though I live in [insert country here].
Actually, I probably can’t; most of the publishers I work with now take electronic publishing rights in their territories/languages as a matter of course. Even if I could, that would require me to make my own e-versions of the books, which I’m not particularly good at nor have much interest in investing my time/energy. I wouldn’t want to put out an e-version if it’s not at least as good and usable as a professionally published version.
By not making your book available in [insert country here] you are driving to me to possibly illegal measures that will profit you nothing!
Well, no. You might be using it as an excuse, but that’s an entirely different thing. As noted there are ways to work around these things in ways that do not deprive me of royalties. I would prefer you do that, obviously.
That said, if the vagaries of the publishing industry conspire to convince you to do something drastic, here’s what to do: When it becomes possible for you to buy the book in [insert country here], please do so, and then we’re square. If you can’t do that for some unfathomable reason, then take the amount that it would have cost you to buy the book and donate it to a local literacy charity, or to your local library. That would be fine by me.
None of this is to say that I don’t sympathize with your plight, my dear friend in [insert country here] — there are books and other such things I want, not in the US, and I get frustrated when I can’t get them in an easy and convenient manner. I feel your pain. Until we are all one big happy planet together, this is the way these things work.
Update, 6/8/11: Patrick Nielsen Hayden, my editor at Tor, writes in to tell me I’m wrong about Tor not being able to sell the book elsewhere in the world aside from the US/Canada:
Leaving aside the fact that our standard North American contract also gives us those all-important Philippines rights (an artifact of long-ago imperial possession), there’s also the phrase “and the same rights, but non-exclusively, in the Open Market, i.e., the rest of the world, except for the territories listed on the Schedule of Excluded Territory attached as Exhibuit A.” What this means is that we can sell our English-language edition all over the world except in a bunch of countries that were once part of the British Empire; for instance, we can sell our English-language edition all over Europe, in Japan, in almost all of North and South America, etc. The only catch, for us, is that we don’t have an exclusive license to sell in those territories; if you sell the same book to a London-based publisher, chances are that their deal will give them the same non-exclusive access to those countries.
Since English is the third most widely-spoken language in the world, it will not surprise you to hear that books in English are sold everywhere. Some English-language books sell very well in parts of the world that are neither the US-and-Canada nor the former British Empire. In the Netherlands, for instance, where English is spoken by practically everyone except for very young children and older rural people, many retail bookstores routinely interfile English-language books from both the UK and the US in amidst books published in Dutch. I have seen our editions of your books for sale in bookstores in Amsterdam and Utrecht–and, for that matter, in Japan’s Narita Airport and in the central train station in Rome. I would hate for anyone who read your post to think that we were breaking the law or disrespecting our contract with you when they come upon such instances of your books’ availability.
There you go, then.