Wrongs of rights

A key issue for us at the moment is the pressure by big global corporate publishers (and the occasional less big publisher) to try to acquire world rights or to enforce global publication dates or generally to behave as though the world is flat. This notion that the digital world is one world is given the lie in various ways.

Consider H is for Hawk, a book that was published and gained momentum in the UK where it became a bestseller. American publication was many months after UK publication and consequently fed off the excitement about the book in the UK and became a bestseller there too. But if the two editions had been published simultaneously, would the US edition have received the reviews and bookseller attention that it did without the buzz out of the UK?

Similarly, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was published first in America in March this year, where its cult status was growing, but it is only since publication by Picador this August that the amazing reception here is beginning to flow back to America and is now having an impact there too. At over 700 pages, it’s also a challenging book for translation but the reverberations of all the chatter around the book has now led to a dozen foreign language sales, and rising.

We do live in a joined-up world, but one with different time zones. Similarly, books can gather momentum where they may, and an attempt to pretend that the whole world is the same is a category error. Certainly if you are publishing a franchise then, like a new Bond or Bourne movie, you might need a global lay down date (although actually I’m not sure that even those movie franchises are necessarily all released simultaneously). But for most books, publishing needs to be more nuanced and responsive to the nature of the book itself and to different markets.

This also leads to the vexed issue of publishers attempting to buy global rights. In the absence of an actual global publication strategy for the book, my guess is that in a year or two many of them will find themselves faced with an increase in their unearned advances. Unless there is an editor to advocate for a book on both sides of the Atlantic, I have seen too many global acquisitions fail. And where publishers are gambling on selling the rights themselves, few of them actually have the necessary skills in their rights departments any more. Even where they do, does one global behemoth actually want to acquire rights from another?

It may be tiresome for management, but every book is different and every publication needs to be thought about carefully in every market. Unless there is a real plan for a book in each territory, it’s better to leave the agents to do their job.

Clare Alexander is a director of literary agency Aitken Alexander.