Time to turn out the gaslight
14.04.08 | Michael Heyward
The UK and Commonwealth rights arrangements, under which the majority of titles are still contracted in the UK, are as old-fashioned as gaslight and top hats. Where the contract includes export royalty provisions for sales in Australia, it often represents a subsidy from the author, via the British agent, to the UK publisher. It makes sense for authors to allow their books to be distributed in the Falkland Islands and to be paid a paltry royalty for this. After all, it is presumably difficult and expensive for British publishers to get books to the Falkland Islands. To apply these arrangements to Australia in 2008 is for many titles a scam.
Many UK-originated titles are no longer shipped to Australia. The files are emailed from London and the book is printed in Australia. British publishers ought to explain to agents why in these circumstances their authors should be paid an export royalty. The cost of exporting the book is little more than the cost of maintaining a broadband connection, and printing locally.
Then there is the question of what happens to the distributed title in Australia. British authors would be appalled if the edition of their work on sale in Barnes & Noble was the UK edition shipped to the US from a warehouse across the Atlantic. Who would expect a title to break out in that situation? And yet so many authors and agents remain complacent about the fact that it is the British edition which goes on sale in Dymocks or Angus & Robertson. Books need champions in every territory where they are published. Quite simply, many extraordinary UK-originated titles fail in Australia because they are not championed and published in Melbourne or Sydney. Instead, lots of these titles trickle almost unnoticed on to the market.
Of course, it increases the profits of a British publisher to be able to print for Australia too, even if we forget for a minute about those dreadful export royalties. I am pretty sure that the word is now out that Australia is a lucrative market with the best retail mix of any English-language territory. It is incredible but true that many UK agents still sign contracts in which all of the export sales are bundled together, and they have no proper idea how many copies of their clients' books have sold in Australia. Can you imagine a British agent ever saying to an author: "Great news, we made a sale of your rights in Germany. And the German publisher was insistent on the Netherlands too, so we threw that into the deal"? Replace Germany with the UK, and the Netherlands with Australia, and you are describing the antiquated territorial norm, in which agents effectively give away for free a consumer base the size of the Netherlands every time they do a deal.
The paper curtain is beginning to come down. Our own co-publishing arrangement with Canongate, in which we sub-license a significant fraction of the Canongate list and publish those books here in Australia, is an innovative solution to the problem, and one which does the right thing by authors. Text and Canongate are now jointly bidding for books and making the case that it is better for the author to be properly published in two countries, rather than published in one and distributed in the other. In addition, Text has co-publishing arrangements with many other British publishers, especially smaller ones like Quercus and Atlantic, which can think laterally. Some agents are beginning to cotton on to the fact that their authors will do well if they are truly loved by Australian editors and publishers, and their titles are properly placed on Australian publishing programmes.
At the very least, if UK agents split rights and offer the book simultaneously in Australia and the UK (likewise making good use of their email connections), they will allow Australian publishers to put a price on the territory, and they will have a bargaining power to force the British publisher to pay for the right to reach 24 million consumers in Australia and New Zealand. They will be in a much stronger position to demand a royalty based on published price. Where they do split rights they are more often than not going to find passionate publishers of their clients' books in Australia. From time to time a British publisher will play the ugliest card in the pack and threaten to withdraw the offer unless ANZ is part of the deal. In that situation, assuming a publisher in Australia who is going to do a great job has been found, the agent can have the best of both worlds by selling the title to one of the many excellent UK houses that are happy to split rights.
It is those British publishers able to think laterally which are going to thrive. The rights world is changing quickly and the rate of change is speeding up. The winners in the UK will be the houses which can respond flexibly and creatively to the publishing opportunities created by these new territorial possibilities.