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The English Language Publishing World | Inside Publishing

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The English Language Publishing World

Chris Holifield 2017

Why does the world get divided up into publishing territories? How has this come about? How does it affect authors?

Splitting up the World

English language publishing works primarily on a London/New York axis. Publishing in English originated in the UK, primarily in London, as a family business, with British publishers exporting their books to the colonies.

The Second World War changed this, but a new status quo was established after the war when Stanley Unwin, a British publisher, led a British delegation which negotiated with American publishers to agree a division of the English-speaking world.

The British Commonwealth was still a strong political and practical reality at that time, so the result was that the British got the lion's share - all the major English-speaking countries such as the UK, Eire, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong, India and Singapore - whilst the US ended up with just the US itself and the Philippines.

At the time this division represented an accurate picture of how books were supplied to these countries, and the UK publishers were able to claim that their export markets were far more important to them than the US's export markets were to American publishers.

The Open Market

If you're wondering what happened to the rest of the world, the answer is that this was regarded as an 'open market'. This meant that both the British and the American publishers of a title were permitted to sell their English language editions in the same country, sometimes competing on price. It may seem cosy in retrospect, but this was before the huge explosion in the learning of English and its establishment as the global lingua franca, so nobody was all that concerned about the open market at the time. It was also before the digital revolution.

Translation rights, the right to translate and publish a book in a foreign language, are a subsidiary right and have been dealt with separately (see Subsidiary Rights). The translated edition is treated like any other book by the publisher who has acquired these rights and arranged for the translation, as that publisher will have rights in the translated edition only.

Growth of English Language Publishing

The agreement to divide up the English-speaking world was codified in a list known as the 'British publishers traditional market' and enshrined in book contracts as the 'schedule of territories'. But over the years American publishers became increasingly interested in selling their books overseas and, with easy land access, Canada gradually became recognised as an American market. Most contracts now give the US publisher Canadian rights, or they are sold directly to a Canadian publisher. Governments in the former British colonies started to feel that they should support their own publishers, which in the case of Canada led to the growth over the years of strong political support for Canadian publishers, which continues to this day, although some would say that it has diminished.

In Australia, the growth of national self-confidence was accompanied by the aggressive growth of Australian publishing. It is still dominated by the local outposts of large international companies, but those companies now feel and act much more like Australian publishers, producing books for their own market, which they then sell overseas. There have been similar developments in New Zealand, South Africa, India, Hong Kong and Singapore, although on a smaller scale.

With the rapidly growing importance of the European English-as-a-second-language market, there were moves some years ago to make Europe a closed market for either the British or the American publisher. British publishers still argue for this on the basis that the Treaty of Rome otherwise gives US publishers open access to the UK market, because it enforces free movement of goods between EU countries.

What about the author?

But, you may be asking, where does the author stand in relation to all this neat carving-up of the world? What's in the author's best interest and how much control does the author have over who sells their book in which country?

The answer is that the grant of territories is enshrined in the contracts with the author, meaning that the author theoretically agrees to the split. But agents and publishers have their own views on the subject, which involve 'custom and practice'. In spite of conglomerates' attempts to buy world rights, or at least what are known as 'world English language' rights, most books are still sold to different publishers in the US and the UK, sometimes with a separate publisher in Australia as well.

Authors should take the advice of their agents on how to sell their rights. However, the general view is that an Australian publisher, for instance, will make more effort on behalf of a book which it is publishing in Australia, rather than one which it is just distributing for a British or American publisher. So the author is better off with a separate Australian publisher.

British Grow Export Sales

Since this article was originally written, the situation has changed in a number of ways. American publishers are putting more effort into their export markets, partly because there have been periods when a weak dollar gives them a price advantage. Times have been tough in the American publishing business and there is a push to look for new markets. Suddenly there are huge markets like India, where British publishers have now established strong companies but which American publishers are eying with interest. The Chinese market is very attractive and has huge potential. American publishers are also interested in Singapore, Malaysia and South Africa. In the meantime UK and US publishers are both benefiting from rapid and substantial growth in sales of English books to European Union countries.

The distribution of world English language rights is also being affected by the growth of international publishing companies which have subsidiaries in a number of countries. They are interested in buying world English language rights but then will of course put them through whichever of their subsidiaries publishes in each country.

The argument from British publishers has always been that exports matter more to publishers who have only a small home market (the US is about five times the size of the UK in terms of population and GDP), so they will 'try harder'. But American publishers are no longer accepting this argument and battle lines are being drawn.

The development of the ebook and massive growth in online bookselling, particularly through Amazon, has started to change this, but in the light of the major changes going on it is actually rather remarkable that the world English language market largely continues to be divided as it has been for many years.

Chris Holifield