I’ve been trying to buy some authors at my local indie store (many of whom are from the BookEnds stable). Today I discovered they would have to buy the books from overseas, so it would be cheaper for me to buy them (at the same price the store would but minus their mark up). It’s what I was doing but I’d really like to support my local store and also not have to wait a few weeks for my purchases. Does this mean the books don’t have foreign rights or just Australian rights? Is there a reason they wouldn’t have them?
Ah foreign rights — one of my favorite and also simultaneously quite complicated areas of publishing! So there are a lot of different reasons for this and, honestly, to go through everything would take about 30 pages and lots of references to a paper on copyright law I wrote in law school. SPOILER ALERT: I’ll save you from the legalese and my paper.
The short answer is… it depends on the book and what was sold to the publisher… and what, in turn, that publisher was able to sell abroad. The books that you can easily find in your local store (I’m assuming you’re in Australia) are ones where the Australian/New Zealand (ANZ) rights were sold to a publisher in that territory. So how does that happen? Well, there are a few different options ways.
Let’s take THIS AWESOME BOOK that was sold to a publisher for World rights — thus that publisher can sell the book into any different territory they want to. It doesn’t necessarily mean that other publishers will acquire it, just that the publisher is the one who can sell it. In this scenario, once the book is sold, the agency is out of the picture in terms of foreign rights.
Now, say an agent just sold THIS BOOK ROCKS to a publisher for World English rights. This means the agent can sell the rights in any other language except English—whereas the publisher can sell the English rights anywhere in the world. This type of sale especially common with the Big Five publishers, because they have subsidiaries in other countries. For example, Penguin Random House has subsidiaries in the U.K., India, and ANZ — all places that produce their own English copies of books. OR, they can license that book to any other house in the English-language territory! (The specific countries a publisher could sell to is spelled out in the contract in something often called Schedule A)
Lastly, we have THE BEST BOOK EVER that sold North American English rights. This means that the Publisher can’t license the book to be published anywhere outside of North America. As the agent, we then can sell the rights into the UK or ANZ (plus all the other countries around the world).
So let’s take something like Harry Potter, book that has sold into different territories worldwide. There are different US and UK licensed copies of the books (I should know… I have copies of both because the first book should be Philosopher’s Stone, not Sorcerer’s Stone. HMPH.) While I don’t know the rights situation and who actually controlled the English-language rights, it at least shows how one book can be licensed in many other English-speaking countries.
If all of this seems complicated and confusing, you’re not alone! In all of the examples above, when rights are sold to a publisher, all that’s been done is enumerate who has the rights to license a book and in which territory(s). But just because the Australian rights were sold, doesn’t necessarily mean that every book has a publisher in Australia. A publisher (or agent) has the ability to make the sale, nothing more. Even selling World English to a Big 5 with subsidiaries doesn’t guarantee an automatic sale in the UK or ANZ. Thus, the short answer that comes from the long explanation, is the books your local book store has to order from overseas is most likely due to the fact they don’t have a publisher in ANZ!