A long-standing trade battle over the right to sell English-language books in Europe has reignited between British and American publishers, with the UK feeling the threat of cheaper US editions at its front door.
Consumers in Europe currently can choose which edition they buy
At Books in Berlin, an independent bookstore in the German capital specializing in English-language titles, owner David Solomon stocks both American and British editions of books. If he has to choose, though, he says he "usually orders the US edition -- they're cheaper."
"In this town, you want to go as cheap as possible," Solomon said.
But while price matters, Solomon says it's not his customers' only consideration.
"Books from Britain may have a different cover, size or typeface than the same book from America, and some customers prefer one cover over another," he said. "Some say that the UK books are better quality."
He estimates that his stock is comprised of 60 percent US editions, and 40 percent UK editions. Most booksellers in Germany similarly carry a mixture of British and American editions.
But that could change if British publishers succeed in their latest campaign to secure exclusive rights to sell English-language books in Europe.
Britain: domestic market under threat
In a trade issue that just won't seem to go away, British and American publishers renewed their battle over rights to the European market at a lively session at BookExpo America last month.
Online sales are changing the publishing industry in Europe
British publishers feel their right to exclusivity in their own home market is being threatened by the open European market, as American editions could be imported by British booksellers from wholesalers on the continent. In addition, sales of books over the Internet have made it easier for US editions to enter the British market.
"It's not a question of trying to get more sales in Europe, but of protecting the British home market," Tim Hely Hutchinson, the CEO of publisher Hachette Filipacchi UK, said at the session.
American publishers, on the other hand, say the debate is a "land grab" attempt by the Brits to shut them out of the European market. Representing the American view, Carolyn Reidy, president of adult publishing at Simon & Schuster, said she was in favor of "increased competition and keeping markets open rather than closed."
The US standpoint got support last week from a group of European booksellers and distributors from Lisbon, Barcelona, Copenhagen, The Hague, and Paris. They sent an open letter to British and American publishers opposing the push by the British to get exclusive sales rights for Europe. Not only would this deprive consumers of choice, they said, it would allow British publishers to fix their retail prices, and represent "a return to protectionism."
British authors such as J.K. Rowling stand to gain more from UK editions sold in Europe
Not included in the letter was any reference about how authors stand to gain or lose from a change in the situation. British publishers argue that authors are getting a bad deal from the current open market.
"The British publishers say that letting the customer decide between editions is not fair, because while they do most of the marketing and promo work in Europe, the bookseller could turn around and order the US edition, and authors would get lower royalties because of this," said Joel Rickett, editor at UK publishing trade magazine Bookseller.
Indeed, British agents have added their voice to the debate, saying American publishers ought to increase their export royalties to UK levels if they want European rights. According to the UK Association of Authors' Agents, US royalties for export are typically half the amount of UK royalties.
Access not affected, Brits say
British publishers say European consumers' access to English-language books would not be infringed upon, as in cases where a book is only published in the US, the book could still be sold in Europe.
But consumer choice could impact the numerous small, independent booksellers in Europe, where chains of English-language bookshops remain absent. Books in Berlin owner Solomon said it would be bad for his business if he were no longer able to offer his customers the cheapest possible edition of a title.
"People buying their books over the Internet would still have the choice," he said. "So yeah, that would hurt."