Why can’t Australians buy the ebooks they want?

In the past few months, the world seems to have gone ebook mad. First the Amazon Kindle was made available locally, now we await the Apple iPad, due at the end of May. Plenty of people are already reading on iPhones and other mobile screens, and there are quite a number of other readers available and an ever-expanding choice of online stores from which to buy ebooks. The reader devices vary in price and features, but for Australian users one complaint is common: I’ve paid for the gizmo, now why is it so hard to buy the ebooks I want to read on the damned thing?

The short, but far from simple, answer is that it’s due to territorial copyright, contractual arrangements between authors and publishers and the long-established ways of book publishing—and it’s nothing to do with Parallel Importation regulations (PIRs) in Australia’s Copyright Act (the restrictions that were such a hot topic of debate last year). That’s because PIRs only cover print books. Electronic files are only considered in the Copyright Act if they’re in physical form—i.e: burned onto CDs/DVDs. There is currently no provision in Australia’s Copyright Act that covers ebook files.

A common misconception is that it is Australian publishers that are restricting access to ebooks that are available to readers in other countries; but this isn’t really the case. On the whole it is US (and in some cases UK) publishers who are setting geographical restrictions on ebooks based on (a cautious reading of) their existing book contracts.

In the simplest (and for this example the best) case an author would sign a global contract with one publisher to sell their book in all markets and in any and all formats. In reality, for the vast majority of books, authors grant only certain rights to their publisher, and usually they choose a different publisher in each major territory. So a US publisher may well acquire print and electronic rights for a particular book for the US market only; meanwhile the author (via their literary agent) is shopping around for the best offer and will try their hardest to sell separate rights to publishers in the UK, to Canada, to Australia and translation rights to other countries, and they may or may not sell electronic rights along with print ones. At the moment, the US is leading the way when it comes to ebooks, so any geographic restrictions imposed on the US publisher in a book contract are coded into their ebook files at the time of their conversion and are a layer of the Digital Rights Management (DRM) that virtually all publishers insist on—and with which retailers have no choice but to comply.

Few ‘global’ books

Publishing is increasingly international, with about half a dozen dominant global players (Penguin, Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster), but there are very few global books. Even the most recognisable of international bestsellers will often be published by a different company in each territory (for example, Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy is published by Quercus in UK, and that edition is distributed via Murdoch Books in Australia, but Random House is Larsson’s publisher in the US). In a borderless online world, you can begin to see the problem: if an Australian customer downloads an ebook from Amazon.com in the US, which publisher receives the revenue?

Authors have traditionally been advised by their literary agents and by authors’ associations to parcel out their rights territory-by-territory and format-by-format, and are strongly advised to guard against selling all their rights in a book to one company, even, in most cases, to a large global publisher. The result is that a book will have a different publisher in each territory around the world—it may be re-edited for local language and will almost certainly have a different cover design and format to suit each market. Authors also have grave concerns about royalty arrangements for ebooks and are being warned against signing blanket, retrospective agreements for older books if/when publishers seek to digitise them. (Conversely, some authors are expressing their frustration at the slow pace of change among large publishers and if they have retained electronic rights they are producing their own ebooks independently of their print publishers, or they are selling ebook rights to a single ebook provider such as Kindle.)

In short, Amazon (or Kobo, or Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository, or locally, Dymocks) can’t sell you ebooks for which the copyright holder (usually the author) hasn’t explicitly granted the publisher rights to sell in Australia. And as a publisher told me just the other day ‘many existing contracts simply don’t specify that there are such things as “Australian ebook rights”’: in the case of the great majority of books already published, no-one currently has the legal right to sell you an ebook in Australia, regardless of whether or not an ebook of that title is for sale in the US or UK.

Things are changing, and authors, agents and publishers are considering ebook rights as they sign contracts for new books and are in the midst of the massive task of renegotiating terms on existing ones. But it will take some time before there is anything like the number of ebooks available to the Australian market (or even the UK) as are already available in the US. Apple may well be the catalyst, or Kobo, to really get things moving with Australian rightsholders: by the time iPads go on sale here and by the time Kobo rolls out via A&R and Borders in May, they will need to offer both local titles as ebooks and to ensure that international titles for which there are separate Australian rights are made available electronically to Australian readers. But if you’ve bought a Kindle … my recommendation would be to not hold your breath or you’ll be very blue by the time Amazon is able to offer you more ebooks.

Tim Coronel is publisher of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

11 thoughts on “Why can’t Australians buy the ebooks they want?

  1. Publishers better hurry and rectify this situation, it’s not like this is news. It’s been coming for a long time and they really have no excuse for not being ready. They should have been looking at this and getting prepared for over 3 years now.

    Until then people will do as I, and many others do. Create US account at Amazon and iTunes (it’s quite easy), and buy their eBooks that way. Australian publishers and book sellers will lose revenue every day until people can buy the books they want when they want them.

    The problem will be, can they get people who have managed to get their eBooks internationally to switch back to Australian distributers once this is fixed?

  2. Can’t help thinking that, with copyright and the law in a state of flux, Amazon won’t soon have the power to stop playing nice and sell all books to all customers.

  3. I think part of the problem with buying via other territories may be that the purchaser’s (or should that be the Lessor’s) IP address will clearly identify them as being in Australia.

  4. I have the same problem in India that you have in Australia. I read ebooks on the PC–the software for that is freely available. But not all the ebooks I want to buy are available for the Indian market, which means I have to purchase a physical copy from an online store.

  5. I have the Sony reader Prs-505 and regularly buy from both US sites and UK (in particular Waterstones). I have also downloaded free e-books from Book Depository without any isses.

    I have never had a problem with the site picking up my IP address and I find that I have an excellent selection of titles to choose from. The advantage in buying from the UK is that the books are a lot cheaper than buying locally. In fact I just loaded my reader up with 17 titles last night ready for an overseas trip, I have even managed to purchase titles with traveling in Asia.

  6. Big global publishers and agents caused this mess by insisting on separate rights (and thus extra profit) for diverse regions of the world. Small independents (Booktaste, Smashwords etc) publish one edition for the whole planet, and their ebooks are leading the book industry to its new future.

  7. I find the whole situation a little ridiculous. Intellectual copyright is actually being undermined by shortsighted, deep pocketed greed mongers because the long and the short of it is – if i can’t legitimately purchase the ebook that I want, I won’t hesitate to find it on P2P and download it for free. I am a little tired of wallowing in the technological backwater that is Australia. You’d think that SOMEONE, anyone would address the issue.

  8. I am at the point where I want to pay for the books I want but, it is easier for me to obtain pirate copies. Stupid really.

  9. I don’t see anything surprising about companies trying to make as much money as they can from their investments. I don’t like it very much, but I am not surprised. What I find a bit perturbing is the lack of leadership from the Government in this important area.

    IP is a necessary monopoly. But that monopoly should be seen as a privilege with responsibilities. The intent of copyright was to encourage the free flow of literature (by giving the authors a way to get paid). So, if it is operating against the free flow of literature, then the law is broken and the Government – as the steward of our interests – should fix it. Yes, it is possible, and no, it doesn’t matter whether any other countries have done it yet.

    Previous Attornies-General in Australia have shown real leadership in addressing the new challenges of digital content. Perhaps this particular problem is something that Robert McClelland – Australia’s current Attorney-General – might think about tackling.

  10. I find it very frustrating that every book i want i cant get i may as well not have a ebook and i cant do as some of these other people have done as i dont know enough about the internet to do it it just makes it so hard

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