Negotiation of European distribution rights will become “a horror show”, agents have warned, with American publishers emboldened to grab European English-language rights from British firms after Brexit. The warning gun over a post-Brexit turf war was sounded as far back as the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair, when Simon & Schuster US c.e.o. Carolyn Reidy said that when UK publishers no longer have tariff-free access to the EU, “the argument the British have used to grab Europe as an exclusive market will be over”.
Will Francis of Janklow & Nesbit told The Bookseller Daily that Europe had indeed become something of a battleground: “I’ve heard some uncertainty from publishers around Brexit and non-exclusive distribution rights in Europe. I recently had a case with two publishers, a UK and US one, where there was a tussle over non-exclusive access to Europe.”
Madeleine Milburn, of The Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency, has also seen similar fights: “We’ve noticed a difference, and assume it’s a knock-on from Brexit and the uncertainty over potential free movement of trade.”
Agent Lorella Belli agreed, though she said the issue was “never a deal-breaker. US publishers are certainly trying [for European exclusivity], and Brexit is an argument used by some of them, since the deals are going to be for length of copyright. Although we don’t know what will happen [to a post-Brexit trade deal], being part of the EU and the free circulation of goods can’t be used as a supporting argument by UK publishers any more.”
One agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said of US publishers: “They 100% have [tried to secure European rights]. They keep trying to include Europe... We’ve really noticed that over the past year.”
Emma Paterson from Aitken Alexander agreed that there had been an increase in such activity, but said “it is something we would defend”, while Sophie Lambert of C+W revealed that “European exclusivity is definitely a question that is arising more often”.
One agent, who preferred to remain anonymous, said: “It’s going to be a bit of a horror show in terms of who has control of the right to sell English books in Europe... It has always rested with the UK, but after Brexit it won’t be so cut and dried.”
However, some agents said they had not seen a change. Robert Caskie of Caskie Mushens said: “I don’t think it is happening more than before. The issue has been going for years and years.” He conceded that the issue “is more relevant now, because US editors are thinking it is harder for the UK to distribute across Europe”.
Peter Straus, m.d. of Rogers, Coleridge & White, agreed with Caskie: “I don’t think this is happening more now. This has been the case for years.”