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'A land grab in continental Europe'

5 June 2006

A recent heated debate at BookExpo in Washington has highlighted the argument about territorial rights between UK and US publishers. Carolyn Reidy, President and Publisher of Simon and Schuster, accused British publishers of engaging in 'a land grab in continental Europe based on the thinnest of legal and business pretences'.

Tim Hely-Hutchinson , CEO of Hachette Livre in the UK, said British publishers' stance was 'about protecting the UK. It would be foolish just to say we want more territories'. The British publishers' argument is that the Treaty of Rome offers free access of goods from the EU into the UK, so once American books are supplied to the EU countries, they can easily find their way into the UK itself. The Americans argue simply for a free market in all parts of the world which are not English-speaking.

The current situation has been affected by the growth of sales of English language books in countries other than the US and the UK, such as Germany. There's also been rapid growth in Internet sales, which can reach across international borders to the individual buyer, wherever that person may be.

The roots of the current situation lie in the postwar agreement between US and UK publishers, which carved up the English-speaking world, producing a standard schedule of territories which was attached to book contracts. (See Inside Publishing on The English Language Market.) The UK got the Commonwealth, i.e. Australia, South Africa and Canada, although Canada has been gradually ceded to the Americans. The US got the Philippines. In a way it's remarkable how long this division has persisted, and many book-buying inhabitants of these countries would resent this post-imperial approach to the world.

Now globalisation is threatening this traditional division of the English-speaking world and the weak dollar has offered American publishers the opportunity to put their books into export markets at a good price. Increasing prosperity makes other places, such as India and Hong Kong, increasingly important markets for English language books. American publishers, hard-pressed at home in a competitive and stagnant market, are eying up possible overseas markets with interest. The Brits are fighting their corner.