Amazon has given the international publishing community plenty to ponder as it gathered this week for the Frankfurt Book Fair. The pending (Oct. 19) release of a $279 Kindle that will be available for sale in more than 100 countries has raised a variety of questions. Here are the most pressing. How will the integrity of territorial rights be maintained? What will be the impact of digital editions on the open market? And how will the international selling of English-language editions be priced and released?
An Amazon spokesperson said the e-tailer has worked with publishers to build a database that knows the correct territory where each of the 200,000 English-language titles available for sale through the international Kindle can be sold. According to Amazon, each customer has a content catalogue associated with his or her region or country, and when a customer orders an e-book, Amazon will display the appropriate catalogue for the customer. A customer in the U.K., for example, will only be able to buy a U.K. edition of an e-book. At present, all international customers will order e-books through their devices or from the main amazon.com Web site; in some cases multiple copies may appear in the database but Amazon will only allow customers to download the appropriate edition. Amazon is establishing the prices, and in the case of the U.K., at least, those editions will be higher than the $9.99 Amazon charges for many American e-books. U.K. prices will range from $11.99 to $13.99, a price that includes VAT (value added tax).
The question of who will buy what in the open market is more complicated and is the issue causing the most concern among agents and publishers. Once again, Amazon said it has worked with publishers to establish a database that will guide the e-tailer in displaying only the appropriate titles. But since many publishing contracts define the “open market” differently—and in many cases American and British publishers have nonexclusive rights to sell to certain markets—how effectively Amazon's database will correctly parse this information remains a question for agents and publishers.
Unquestionably the international Kindle—as it exists now—will heighten the value of digital English-language rights, since those editions will now be available in a number of open markets. Similarly, publishers—most already insisting on digital rights as part of their print acquisitions—will step up efforts to bind digital and print rights together.
Some agents believe the ability of customers in open markets to buy English-language e-books will further weaken already embattled U.K. publishers, who depend on those sales more than American houses. E-books are also likely to be available quicker than print books in most markets, which could undercut the market for print titles in open territories. Robert Gottlieb, chairman of Trident Media, said Kindle's new international device has “large ramifications” for the publishing community; he's especially concerned about the effect on the U.K. publishers, many already facing trouble from a difficult local market. Concerning the open market, Gottlieb said the e-tailer is simply “not respecting territorial contracts.” And however sincere Amazon may be in trying to protect territorial rights, agent Richard Curtis observed, “When you're talking digital and wireless technology, all borders are porous.”
Despite the challenges, John Makinson, chairman of Penguin, believes the international Kindle will help to stimulate sales of e-books in foreign markets. “It should get conversations started about digital books in different areas,” Makinson said, acknowledging, however, that most of those conversations will be among an elite group who have the means, and interest, in buying an e-book, especially one in English.