Territorial rights are "obsolete", and contribute to the erosion of publishers' margins, but publishing remains an "intimate" business that would not be improved if local nuances are not respected, delegates at Publishers Launch London heard yesterday.
Richard Charkin, executive director of Bloomsbury, said the publisher had moved to a global alignment and now tried to buy world English rights in all cases, adding that the ability provided by digital to publish globally meant territorial restrictions based on countries were "obsolete". He said the restrictions were one of the reasons publishers struggled to be more profitable. "Our problem as an industry is not reach, it is margin, and one of the problems about our margins is that our overheads are very high, and the complexity that we have built into the system, which is partially down to territoriality, makes things much harder."
Charkin said the usefulness of territories was being eroded by digital. "Clearly selling digital products is much more an internet based activity, so you are going to be diluting your efforts if you try to promote on a territorial basis, and there's not a lot of point promoting on a territorial basis if you don't get the benefits. It's a commercial argument rather than a legal one."
But David Miller, agent at Rogers, Coleridge and White, and Toby Mundy, chief executive of Atlantic Books, both defended local approaches to publishing and continuing use of territories within the English-speaking world. Miller said: "I don't buy that the world is going global, that there is just one market, and it seems to me there is still an argument that you grant rights to the publisher who can best exploit them in their territory." Miller added: "I worry if we simply rip up territories, and grant world rights with digital included, that we will lose some focus on how an author is published in each market."
Mundy said the inclination of the big groups to attempt to buy world English rights would leave gaps for smaller regional publishers to exploit. "If the big groups were so inclined to do this, I would welcome it since it would leave an enormous gap for any author who didn't want to feel like a tin of beans, and for publishers of our size to exploit." Mundy said the big companies had never done a "terribly good job creating synergies and then selling content globally", and said digital did not change this. "The reason it didn't work before was not because it was a manufacturing business rather than digial business."
Charkin said he could not see many advantages for authors having more than one English-language publisher. "Is the author going to be better served having two publishers, I suspect not, he may of course get two unearned advances, which may be to his benefit."
But Miller said that even where global rights were sold, there was often more than one contract, meaning that if a publisher "screwed" up in one territory, the agent could take the book elsewhere.
Mundy said that it was up to the vendor to be convinced to not split rights. "The vendor controls the right, and for territorial rights to disintegrate the vendor is going to have to give in to the hegemonic power of the big groups and I just don't see it." Miller agreed: "I don't see that much change, publishers are not insisting they get world rights, we are still able to split them." And Charkin admitted: "There's nothing wrong with a territorial right, we'll fight to protect the terrorital rights we have paid for."