Hostilities between UK and US publishers are at an all-time high, and the battlefield is Europe

<p>Alison Bone</p><p>Sparks flew in Washington last month, as festering antagonisms over the knotty issue of exclusive European rights surfaced at BookExpo America. UK publishers stand accused by their US counterparts of a "land grab" in continental Europe; US publishers, in turn, are criticised by the UK for their America-centric view of the world. Hostilities are at an all-time high, as the UK struggles to prevent an influx of cheap US editions breaching its crumbling defences, and the US resists being denied entry to the lucrative European book market.</p><p>The issue, British publishers are happy to admit, is not a new one. The UK's copyright laws were brought into line with EU legislation in 1988. This meant that goods legally imported into any EU country could not be prevented by copyright from being distributed into other EU states, even when national territorial rights apply.</p><p>"The situation is that EU law has been as it is for about 20 years," says Penguin m.d. Helen Fraser. "From the American point of view, British publishers really started to get Europe exclusively 20 years ago, so the American view is why all the fuss now?" </p><p>"Clearly American publishers are saying that nothing seems to have changed," says Faber c.e.o. and PA president Stephen Page. "But there is a fundamental principle at stake here. We need to own Europe exclusively to know we own the UK exclusively."</p><p>Free and easy</p><p>The reason UK publishers are so keen to push for exclusive ownership of the European market now is that the growth of platforms such as Amazon Marketplace, coupled with the weak US dollar, means American editions are a far cheaper option for European booksellers and consumers, and easier to access than ever before.</p><p>Bart Vlek, commercial manager at Athenaeum Boekhandel in the Netherlands, orders a considerable number of academic titles from both sides of the Atlantic. "Books from publishers like OUP are also available through Baker&amp;Taylor. If a customer orders one of their books it costs &#163;35 in the UK, which I would convert to &#x20AC;75. In the US it would cost $40, which would be &#x20AC;50. We are really struggling with that choice."</p><p>And Susan Rosenberg from Brentano's in Paris says American wholesalers do not care about rights restrictions: "We are told by certain publishers that we are not allowed to buy American editions, but it's a joke--they can't enforce it. Distributors in Europe are not able to buy from American publishers, but bookstores can just go to wholesalers. They don't care. It's a well-known secret."</p><p>A fear of UK publishers is that a supermarket such as Asda (owned by American giant Walmart) could decide to import cheap American editions through the continent. This has not happened yet, and some believe that publishers are playing with fire by bringing it up in public forums such as BEA. "You can be damn sure that if this talk takes place in a public arena, it is likely seeds will be sown in their minds," says one wary publisher. "These are extremely canny multinational players."</p><p>The UK is relying on pragmatism and goodwill--a precarious situation. "I feel it isn't the case that Asda will do it, but it is dependent on fairly fragile things. They will be thinking about wanting to preserve practicalities and good will. But it only takes one slightly maverick individual to say 'fuck it, I don't care about the next Freddie Flintoff' to stir things up. It will cause mayhem," warns the publisher.</p><p>Taking the fight</p><p>British publishers have been raising the notion of "exclusive Europe" for many months--Little, Brown c.e.o. Ursula Mackenzie wrote to UK agents about it in December--but feel the time is now right to take the argument to America. Page explains: "British agents are becoming clearer about what is in the interests of writers, and in very large instances we are buying European exclusive rights from UK agents. We are now taking the argument to the Americans. And it's very clear we have lots of persuading to do."</p><p>The issue is "absolutely central" for the PA, says Page, and the trade association has gone so far as to hire PR firm Colman Getty to try to get the message across. This is difficult: friction is not only present between competitors but also internally.</p><p>Hachette Livre UK, whose c.e.o. Tim Hely Hutchinson has spoken out strongly about the need for exclusive Europe, is in an easy position compared with many of its rivals. One rival senior publisher who did not wish to be named, fearing it would cause problems with US management, says: "With Hachette, which is run from Paris and London, they can say to New York, 'this is the policy and the deal'. They can just tell them. Here we report to the US and we are not in a position to say, 'this is our worldwide policy on exclusivity in Europe'. We are walking on eggshells."</p><p>Jonny Geller, m.d. of the books division at agency Curtis Brown, agrees that this gets to the heart of the problem. "What can't be solved is the debate between houses over protecting Europe for UK publishers. That's an internal argument between HarperCollins US and UK, and Random House US and UK. All we can do is steer authors in the right direction."</p><p>Agents are in a difficult position, reporting that deals have been held up in recent months as the US and UK struggle for control over Europe. "A lot of internal fighting is going on; it's very bloody," says agent Clare Alexander of Gillon Aitken. "The threat to authors that America will not buy books without access to Europe is very big." Simon Trewin at PFD believes that it is down to publishers to sort out the problem. "We have to do the best thing for our authors, and at the moment the publishers are trying to do the best thing for themselves--the two don't necessarily overlap."</p><p>UK agents say that US royalties for export are typically half or less than UK royalties, leaving them in the position that representing the author's best interests would mean denying the US access to the open market--which could mean foregoing an American edition.</p><p>Trewin says he will back UK publishers because they do a better job for authors. "UK publishers' export sales departments are very serious compared to the US ones. European sales are a core part of their costings--they really value them and work hard to exploit them."</p><p>Hostile takeover</p><p>This is a key argument for UK publishers, who--while adamant they are not involved in a land grab and are only pushing for exclusive Europe in order to protect the UK--maintain that they serve Europe far better than US publishers, putting more effort into publicity, marketing and developing the market. And this is where hostilities really start to show.</p><p>"There is a difference between fully publishing a book and sitting back and distributing it," says a senior UK publisher. "Whenever Americans say 'the world is a global market', they never mean America is part of the global market. They never mean UK editions could be sold in San Francisco. It's complete doublethink, and it's deeply ingrained in their habits. The rest of the world is fair game but they've made a fortress of their shores."</p><p>There is one group that has not been given the chance to air its views about the issue, and it is not happy. European booksellers are furious at the UK's push to take on Europe exclusively, and are starting to speak out.</p><p>"From my point of view, the PA document [prepared as a briefing on the issue for publishers] ignores the European book trade which ultimately decides what is sold into Europe," says European sales agent Michael Geoghegan. "I can't think of a single bookseller or wholesaler in Europe who would accept being prohibited from buying American books for all sorts of reasons. Whatever UK publishers say they would like to do, the European bookselling trade will say no." </p><p>A questionnaire sent out to European booksellers by a US publisher garnered pages of livid responses, ranging from a Paris bookshop's comment that "Paris is too international to be straight-jacketed into UK tastes" to "dread" from a Swedish retailer that the penny-pinching of the UK would cause prices to rocket. A Portuguese distributor wrote: "The Brits, normally, do not want to have anything to do with Europe (which they call the 'continent', and whose currency they strongly refuse to adopt), but when it serves their interests they suddenly remember that they are part of Europe. I hope that US publishers do not agree in letting Britannia rule again."</p><p>Five Euro booksellers last week sent an open letter to US and UK publishers, laying out their opposition to UK publishers' moves for exclusive Europe, ranging from lack of competition to the opportunity it would present to internet players such as Amazon to supply consumers anywhere with editions of their choice.</p><p>The long fight</p><p>After a buffeting at BEA, it does not look as if UK publishers are going to succeed in their quest any time soon. Even if they do, it is unlikely that any move would be a blanket retrospective decision, so vast quantities of backlist would still be legally permitted to enter Europe from the US, and thence the UK. "It's absolutely not something that can be resolved in two to three months' time. It will be a long, ongoing part of the whole continuing copyright debate over the next couple of years," says one publisher.</p><p>World rights, Hely Hutchinson believes, are the ultimate answer. "While so much is changing in the publishing world, it's very helpful to think about how you'd redesign things if we were starting from scratch. You would start with world rights--they would be the norm for books as they are for music. That is essentially our drive."</p>