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U.S. Books for Britain: Will Web Sales Infringe Rights?
Jean Richardson -- 10/7/97
The recent flap over the ban on Kitty Kelley's The Royals for online selling in the U.K. focused attention on the phenomenon of online U.S. book sales to British customers. Although Internet selling is not new in the U.K. -- the Internet Bookshop was a pioneer in the field back in 1994 -- this fall sees a number of new initiatives from traditional booksellers and a general recognition that the Internet offers an exciting way of selling that will revolutionize the U.K. book trade, and could even destabilize it. Also under threat is the whole concept of publishers' rights in traditional markets, as the reading public -- which cares not at all about territorial rights -- discovers that it can order what it wants, often at a discount.
But price is not seen as an immediate priority. Instead, booksellers are looking to attract buyers through the quality of their service. The Cambridge bookshop Heffers, a relatively new player in cyberspace, with a database of 1.9 million titles, emphasizes turnaround speed and a personalized e-mail service that keeps in touch with the customer, advising when books are sent and of any problems in supplying them. The site hasn't been going long enough to build up a user profile, but IT director Barry Watts said it's bringing in a steady flow of orders from the U.K., the rest of Europe and the U.S.

Blackwell's, its counterpart at Oxford, is relaunching its website with a range of 1.5 million titles, plus synopses, book news, reviews and recommendations. Seventy-five percent of Blackwell's business comes from overseas, and it plans to build on its reputation as a world-famous academic bookseller, seeking to build customer loyalty with personalized home pages that will take into account a customer's particular interests.

A Level Playing Field

Asked about selling U.S. titles into the U.K., Herbert Kim, head of Blackwell's online sales and marketing, told PW, "There must be a level playing field amongst all booksellers. One of our primary competitors, Amazon.com, has long been selling U.S. titles into the U.K. market, even when equivalent U.K. editions exist. If Amazon can sell U.S. editions into the U.K. market, we don't see why Blackwell's shouldn't offer its customers the same option." Kim went on to highlight the fact that territorial selling rights could soon become a thing of the past, but stressed that good relationships with publishers are very important to Blackwell's and that it hopes to get together with them to resolve the issue.

Looking ahead, Kim forecast 163.5 billion pounds (about $7.6 billion) revenue for the industry by the year 2000, with wholesalers emerging as the guaranteed winners. He also felt that niche bookselling would develop, with some players content to develop a strong following in a particular area.British book chains Waterstones and Dillons are both launching new Net initiatives. Waterstones, which has had a website since last October, has designed an Internet home-shopping service that will allow it to upgrade its service with more titles, new and topical promotions and easier online ordering. September saw the opening in Glasgow of the largest new bookshop in the U.K. in 50 years. Designed as a megastore for the 21st century and described by Waterstones' managing director Alan Giles as "an opportunity to reinvent what British bookselling is about," its technological features include a database of more than a million titles that can be accessed by customers and a Cafe Internet area in which, for a modest charge, anyone can surf the Net.

September also sees the launch of The Book Place, described as the U.K.'s largest Internet bookstore, with a database of 1.2 million titles and more information about every title than ever available before. Founded by the information supplier Book Data, the Book Place will be supplied by Dillons, Hammicks and Peters bookstores, and will have its own magazine, Bookends. Director Matthew Pollock claims that it will be possible to locate any book in print, without knowing the author or the title. (The phrase "Mr. Darcy," for example, will be enough to lead visitors instantly to a whole range of editions of Pride and Prejudice.)

At present, overall turnover of U.K. book sales on the Net is around 163,200,000 pounds ($310,000), but this is expected to increase rapidly as the advantages of larger stock, speedy delivery and lower prices become more apparent. At the moment, discounting is largely limited to special promotions, but lower U.S. prices and the chance to buy titles before they are published in the U.K. are attractive incentives, despite legal problems involving rights territories.

Breaking the Law

The Internet Bookshop was forced at the last minute to cancel plans for the launch of a special discount on books imported from the U.S., and the Publishers Association has no doubt about the illegality of importing books to which U.K. publishers have exclusive territorial rights. Chief executive Clive Bradley stressed that while the P.A. has no objection to Internet bookselling, it is concerned about the supplying of the U.S. edition of a book to which a U.K. publisher has exclusive rights. Ever the lawyer, Bradley said that much will turn on where the actual sale takes place. Bringing a book purchased in the U.S. into the country for personal use would not be an infringement of copyright, but ordering it via the Internet might be.

Publishers, on the other hand, have so far taken a more laid-back attitude. Comments made to PW varied from Philippa Harrison of Little, Brown, who said, "We need to look into it very carefully indeed," to Steve Rubin of Transworld, who felt that it was not really a problem. He described the Internet as a young people's market, a form of book-buying that is more convenient and sexier; "Mail order, after all, has always been available."

But Diane Spivey, rights director of Simon &Schuster U.K., finds it more worrying, though still a relatively small-scale issue. "Territoriality is an issue for business books in particular," she said. "British publishers are able to insist on simultaneous publication of U.K. titles, but agents or U.S. publishers have the upper hand if they control the rights." She feels that publishing digests or abstracts on the Internet is currently more of a threat, and that British publishers would probably not take much of a stand until the issue affects their bank balances.

There d s seem to be general agreement, however, that the book business is set to become ever more global, and that publishers may need to rethink and adapt their territorial rights. But unless and until someone is prepared to take the battle to the courts, U.K. booksellers are likely to take full advantage of their investment in the Internet -- and damn the consequences.
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