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Rights tussles dominate the news

23 June 2008

It's been one shock after another in the publishing world, with lots of changes and some tussles which might yet develop into full-blown war.

In the US both Random House US and HarperCollins have new young heads and this has been hailed as the handing-over of the reins to a new generation. The thinking may be that the 'new boys' will be better able to cope with the many challenges facing publishers today (see News Review 9 June).

Recent figures from the US predicted unit sales falling in 2008 and recessionary fears dominated Book Expo 2008, the biggest annual American book fair, earlier this month. By all accounts BEABookExpo America, commonly referred to within the book publishing industry as BEA. The largest annual book trade fair in the United States has now slipped back into its original identity and is no longer much of a focus for international publishers. Barnes & Noble and Borders were virtually unrepresented, but independent booksellers and librarians came from all over the US. It is still a very significant fair in the American book trade's calendar, but the London Book Fair has effectively taken over as the dominant spring fair for international rights.

nternational rights are high on everyone's agenda at the moment. American publishers, relatively late to the table in terms of international sales, are making a determined pitch for India, traditionally part of the British publishers' market (see Inside Publishing on The English language publishing world). They are well behind, as most of the bigger British publishers have already established flourishing companies in India, with Penguin taking the lead, but this huge country with its burgeoning English-speaking middle class is becoming an increasingly important market.

A possible shift in international rights is reflected in the fact that in the reshuffle mentioned above, Victoria Barnsley, the CEO of HarperCollins UK, has been put in charge of International, ie all HarperCollins' outposts outside the US. It seems unlikely that she will want to support the American part of the company grabbing places like India. Perhaps it's time everyone stopped thinking of India and other countries as territories 'owned' by British or American publishers, but instead saw them as vibrant and growing book markets producing a whole skew of wonderful new writers.

The other fight relates to e-book rights. American publishers are trying to lay claim to global rights, on the basis that e-books can be downloaded anywhere in the world. That argument completely undercuts the current territorial division of the world, which derives extremely specifically from the original author contracts. Working through their agents or directly with publishers, authors bestow the right to publish in each country, or the right to sub-lease these rights, through their original publishing contracts.

American publishers may want to claim that world English language e-book rights should go to them, but this undercuts the entire territorial basis of publishing rights so it will be resisted by agents and also by publishers internationally. Why would a British publisher want to buy UK rights to an American author if they knew that American publishers would retain the e-book rights for the UK? The author, as the creator of the intellectual property, has the ultimate right to decide how their work will be licensed and used.