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The latest despatch from the Turf Wars

9 June 2008

No sooner had the dust settled on Bertlesmann's surprise appointment of German print supremo Markus Dohle to succeed Peter Olson as CEO of Random House US, than another unexpected change hit the American publishing world. Jane Friedman, the successful and popular head of HarperCollins, also announced her immediate departure.

The American publishing scene has been relatively stable in recent years, so two top-level departures at once are a surprise. At Random House the less-than-sparkling financial results seem to provide a likely reason, although Olsen says he had made a personal decision move on. For HarperCollins the change is harder to read, as the company's recent success would seem to dictate retaining the existing management.

In both cases corporate thinking is at work. Bertelsmann's Random House is the biggest publisher in the US and the second biggest in the UK. The company also owns publishing companies throughout Europe. HarperCollins is owned by News International, which has massive media holdings around the world. The insatiable search for corporate profit must go on.

Publishing, like everything else, has become more global. The credit crunch is making corporate life tougher and comes at a time when publishing has many new challenges to face. Not the least of these are what are being called the Turf Wars.

American publishers are trying to insist that contracts for American authors should give them global e-book rights, cutting across agreements on terrestrial rights. Their argument is that an e-book can effectively be downloaded - and therefore sold - anywhere in the world. As the Bookseller said: 'This may seem a mere technical point while e-books represent a fraction of print sales, but it has dramatic implications. As digital content mushrooms, British and international publishers could be reduced to mere distributors of "dead tree" products, while the US hoovers up 100% of online sales.'

British and other international publishers have no choice but to assert the primacy of territorial rights, as otherwise they risk losing control of the books they have contracted and are working to market. Simon Juden, CEO of the UK Publishers' Association, said that he would expect digital rights to come with print rights, as 'among other things, the publisher who puts money into marketing the book should reap the rewards'.

On the face of it the 25% royalty offered for e-books by American publishers looks a better deal for authors than the 15% that British publishers are trying to establish as a norm. However if the resolution of digital territoriality means sweeping away the existing structure of the world book market, authors have a lot to lose. In their contracts they licence publishers to sell their work in certain formats and territories, and it is not in their interest to split off e-book rights in this way. Above all, it is essential to preserve individual authors' right to decide who shall sell their work in each territory - and not to let this control be ceded to the corporations.

Inside Publishing on The English language publishing world