The Politics of Publishing

The Politics of Discipleship, Baker Academic, $24.99
USA Edition: $24.99
The Politics of Discipleship, SCM-Canterbury Press, £25
UK Edition: £25.00

Today, I am annoyed. Annoyed from my own perspective as a retailer, but more annoyed on behalf of my customers who are being asked to pay £10 over the odds for a new book simply because of the perversity of an international rights deal between publishers.

On this occasion — and this is far from the first time my customers and I have had run-ins with publishers over rights restrictions — the book concerned is Graham Ward’s The Politics of Discipleship: USA edition, Baker Academic, $24.99; UK edition, SCM-Canterbury Press, £25. Using current exchange rates, $24.99 works out at £15.05; for the latest figures, allow Google to do the sums for you: 24.99 USD in GBP — unless there’s been a major shift in the markets, it won’t have changed much.

It’s not just about price, however: in this case, ironically, it’s the very topic of the book itself. Subtitled “Becoming Postmaterial Citizens”, the book addresses such issues as “the perversities of globalization” (Stanley Hauerwas, endorsing the book).

Yes indeed, globalization, or globalisation. Take your pick of spellings but the fact is that we now live in a global community, serving a global marketplace. Global. It means worldwide. It means — wakey, wakey, publishers! — international rights restrictions are dead. They’re history. They’re like the parrot in that old Monty Python sketch: kaput; deceased. That era is gone, over and done.

Your customers, who also happen to be my customers, aren’t interested in your wheeler dealer negotiations over who publishes what where, whatever vast or not-so-vast sums of money may have changed hands — especially not when the price in one corner of the market is marked up like this. Who in their right mind is going to pay £25 for a book that’s also published for $25 and available for even less at the click of a mouse?

On what basis am I as a retailer supposed to tell a customer who walks into my shop with a Baker catalogue offering them a book — part, incidentally, of a series that they’ve been collecting — at $25, “No, you can’t buy that edition here, you’ve got to buy the de-serialised edition from SCM-Canterbury for £25.”?

They will say to me, “Dearly beloved bookseller, you must be joking.”

And I say to you, “Dearly beloved publisher, you must be joking.”

I’ve said this before: I say it again: the geographical boundaries you’re fighting over are in meltdown: the internet — and now the digital — revolution has broken down the barriers. It’s time to recognise that when you publish a book you’re not simply publishing it for your own country: you’re publishing it for the world.

That’s globalization. That’s life. It’s part of what it means to work in today’s marketplace, and trying to restrict products according to the old ways simply doesn’t work anymore. To serve your customers you need to think like your customers — and if you attempt to build walls to stop them, those walls, like the Berlin Wall back in 1989, will be torn down. Trying to block sales through Amazon simply won’t work: you may be able to stop this one, but others will slip through and other channels will open.

Call it the “perversity of globalization” if you wish, but from where I’m standing selling books, it’s the perversity of publishers.

35 thoughts on “The Politics of Publishing

    • That’s our dear old friends at Biblica you need to talk to, Michael: they hold the world rights to the NIV and license it to whom they will.

      In the UK, that’s Hodder, for editions priced at over £9.99 or some such arbitrary figure, which conveniently allows STL to undercut them with cheaper editions. In the USA it’s Zondervan. There’s big money involved, but that’s another story in this distinctly non-postmaterial world…

  1. The vast majority of these separate rights deals are instigated by authors/agents rather than by publishers. As publishers, we want to get world rights, which (among other benefits) enable us to ensure consistent pricing around the world. But the author/agent generally earns more money by selling the rights for different areas separately, and I think it’s difficult to blame them for making the decision to do so.

    • Thanks Sam. As it happens I contacted the author over this one. He contacted SCM-Canterbury. They said the price couldn’t be changed because it had already been advertised. Balderdash and piffle.

      OK, so it’s authors and agents too who need to wake up. Wake up, y’all: we’re in a global marketplace!!

  2. For an author this is a problem. If they sign a deal with publisher ‘x’ (say an American one) for North America and get a certain amount of advance. They probably won’t get any more advance if they grant global rights. However, if they then sign a deal with publisher ‘y’ (say a UK publisher) for the Commonwealth less Canada they can probably get another 30% of advance compared to a single deal.

    The problem is that most publishers want global deals, but they don’t want to pay an advance for each territory.

    The more insidious problem is when a publisher agrees to a global contract, but then licenses other english language territories because it really cannot meet the need in those areas. The publisher gets an ‘advance’ from the licensee, and the author gets a lot less royalty than they would from the primary product.

    If global means global, then publishers, distributors, authors and retailers all need to look at the way contracts are done. The problem is, no one wants to be the one who loses out.

  3. Oh, by the way. Is there not an argument to support your local UK publisher, regardless of price, out of the need for a UK witness?

    Just wondering ….

    • Good point, Ian; and in this case shouldn’t that be Lion Hudson in their guise as Baker Publishing Group UK?

      If SCM priced the UK edition sensibly, of course, there wouldn’t be an issue — leaving aside questions of cover design, that is, because whether we like it or not, people do judge books by their cover…

  4. Phil – for some reason I cannot reply to the comment above (Nov 10 9.23am).

    Yes – cooperating, not competing. That would be good I guess (although is cometition bad? can one cooperate and yet compete? I don’t know, just wondering).

    But how do you do that? How do you ensure a living wage for an author (who are, in general, the lowest paid in the industry as they normally cannot earn a living wage from writing alone) whilst avoiding the rights problems we have outlined? I don’t think we have a lack of intent here, but I just haven’t seen a good proposal that would work to help publishers, retailer AND authors flourish.

    I can see day when, if we don’t find a solution, that authors will find vehicles that enable them to take their product direct to customers avoiding both publishers and retailers. It is starting to happen in the music industry already.

    • Ian,

      Plenty of authors are already doing the direct self-publish/marketing thing or a semi-direct shared collaboration print in the general specialist and even fiction markets – and to be honest many of them are doing it well, internet, e-books and POD make all of this so much the easier.

      On the general side of it we have worked well with a number of shared collaboration authors, they are good people to work with, often positive to do events and as invested in their books as we in the shop are invested in their books and our shops :0)
      It makes for a good collaboration indeed, as we help promote them, they help promote us and in the end the internet shops also benefit as well.

      Truly a positive symbiotic relationship!

      I am beginning to be contacted by more christian authors now -twitter and FB seem to be some of their main search mediums, but then bookselling in its traditional medium (bookshops) has always been a social network thing, hand-selling and understanding and sharing the knowledge of the book etc. So I guess these mediums make sense in that way.
      So I think you are right about the authors finding their own mediums – but then part of this is not just the low authors fee’s, it’s also the increasing hardship in finding a publisher who can afford to take a chance on anything other than a sure thing in the increasingly hard market that is Books.

  5. Cooperating, not competing, would be wonderful. However, the tone of your original posting is hardly likely to foster that spirit of cooperation. It appears to imply that you consider publishers to be money-grabbing shysters, always looking to make a dishonest buck at the expense of retailers and customers. Personally I do think that we have lost our way somewhat with the plethora of English translations when some people groups still lack the Scriptures in their own language but, as Ian suggests, a solution to the challenges of serving all parties equitably in a global marketplace is somewhat elusive. It is a major concern, but I must confess that in this particular instance I was more troubled by the combative tone of your original comments than the issue itself!

    • I’m a bolshy guy when something gets my goat, Jonathan: maybe one day I’ll try staring at the beasties 😉 — but thanks for stopping by and straightening me out. To set the record straight, no, I don’t think most publishers are rip-off merchants, although I do wonder when I see the insane prices Brill and Continuum like to put on so many of their books, and it concerns me to see what looks like SCM-Canterbury heading that way…

      I can see no reason whatsoever why the two companies couldn’t have co-published the book, as we see so many books these days with two or even three ISBNs printed on them for the different territories. Even with the rights hived off between them, there’s no need for separate editions, and especially not at such vastly different prices. So in this instance I really do think the two companies together with Lion Hudson need their heads banging together.

      With you all the way on Bible translation thing, as I’ve said here many times.

  6. Phil,

    The bit I’m unclear on is the bit about stopping sales through Amazon, if you put in ‘politics of discipleship’ the first one that comes up is the US edition, and plenty are selling it new and used though Amazon Marketplace, although Amazon direct is itself 4-7 weeks, but the others are all roughly within the week or so.

    And as you say if you go to Eden then its actually stock available, or bookdepository and its also despatched within 48hours.

    The thing though is the fact that they show in a list with the english scm edition priced at so much more.
    This is bad news for publisher and traditional retailer really!

    The problem is it makes it/us look bad – the culture is ‘I can get it cheaper’ anyway, so in this instance it looks to the customer like a form of rip-off even when it’s not but is conditioned by economies of scale and economics etc.

    But try explaining that to the average customer and it sounds like bunkum and scam to them – ‘if amazon/eden/tesco/asda/baker academic (fill in large scale whomever here) etc etc can…’ is the general response these days – and though you try to explain they don’t hear – and on one level as others have said previously on other issues – why should they care and why should we expect them to?

    But one thing I would question is that the tone generally here in responses would seem to be that in this instance because it is a publisher issue, as opposed to straight retailer issue, that there should be some higher caring/support- think about it…

    You know what – my argument is that there should be a return to the Net Book Agreement (a form of which works very well for France still!) this protected everyone, author, publisher and all the different types of bookseller!
    Because the field was level for all, and yes competition was still possible! but books weren’t devalued before they even hit the shelves!

    Of course, Phil, your amazon/eden affiliate shop might do very well again if your customers decide to use it to look at – what with stocks available reports & marketplace and secondhand alternatives available to buy!

    But of course this then contributes to the argument from publishers/authors that Amazon/Internet bookshops is where the sales are at and the ones to whom the discounts & supports should be given. Talk about your perennial catch 22 situation!!

    And I can’t say too much there, as after all as has been well acknowledged in the trade press etc that Amazon are indeed the ‘third’ largest wholesaler in the UK (indeed lets face it they are often better value than the %’s given by the real wholesalers/publishers!!) and supermarkets are indeed the other choice for many general indie booksellers as well.

    Yes, in the end these things need to be acknowledged, assessed and understood – and probably reality needs to be faced, things have changed and choices now need to be made, how do we want the booktrade, especially our beleagured christian booktrade, to work and how do we work together for this end and for the good and growth of all? Or do we??

    I know the choice I want for us to make – I want a booktrade system where we all work in tandem, seperate but symbiotic, and that symbiosis being preferably mutual, at worst, commensal – but certainly not parasitic!

    But then I’ve always been a dreamer and thrived on the hope of things to come whilst building on the rock of ages past :0)

    • As previously mentioned to Phil (weeks ago), we have long since asked Amazon to remove the US listing which contravenes licensing agreements relating to this title. There is nothing which can be done about Marketplace sellers unless they are selling new stock – and we have also asked Amazon to restrict those where they exist. We have to do this regularly for a range of books including those published under our own imprints.

      As the distributors for Baker Publishing Group, we abide by their licensing arrangements with other publishers. If Phil wishes to have a conversation with me or with John O’Nions about our pricing practices for Baker Publishing Group titles in the UK, he knows where to find us. 🙂

      • Thanks Anne – indeed I do, and I have no complaints about your prices: they seem to be pretty well in line with what one would expect.

        The thing is, in this situation Amazon are right. You, Baker and all the other publishers/agents/authors tying yourselves up in knots over rights restrictions need to recognise the reality of globalisation. You say you regularly have to issue requests to Amazon about this issue: doesn’t that tell you something?? Not that Amazon are being ornery but that Amazon have seen the global reality of the marketplace. Yes, I’ve read all the reports in The Bookseller and I’ve seen Amazon’s assurances that they’ll respect rights restrictions yadda yadda yadda… but as a certain someone once said, “you’ll know them by their fruits”. Ignore what they say: watch what they do; and adjust your own behaviour accordingly. Globalisation won’t go away and picking away at it one title at a time is simply a waste of your time, their time and ours.

        Here’s hard reality: several of my customers are off to SBL. They’re going to come back with arms full of books for themselves and their colleagues — also my customers — that I haven’t been able to obtain for them largely because of the folly of rights restrictions.

        Back to my original post:

        the geographical boundaries you’re fighting over are in meltdown: the internet — and now the digital — revolution has broken down the barriers. It’s time to recognise that when you publish a book you’re not simply publishing it for your own country: you’re publishing it for the world.

        That’s globalization. That’s life. It’s part of what it means to work in today’s marketplace, and trying to restrict products according to the old ways simply doesn’t work anymore. To serve your customers you need to think like your customers — and if you attempt to build walls to stop them, those walls, like the Berlin Wall back in 1989, will be torn down. Trying to block sales through Amazon simply won’t work: you may be able to stop this one, but others will slip through and other channels will open.

        Please: wake up!

        • Phil

          But the licensing here is between Baker and their UK publisher. Lion as the distributor are bound by what products Baker permit them to sell, so I think Anne’s actions here are reasonable.

          However, I do agree that Amazon, 72 hour international shipping from wholesalers and other issues are making international rights irrelevant. I still say that the passive acceptance of this means that the author is the one who loses out through reduced advances and royalties. If UK consumers buy a US-sourced copy of a UK published book, or a US licensed edition of a UK book, by a UK author then the author will earn less as it will be a subsidiary export royalty rather than a domestic market royalty.

        • Agreed, Ian. From a licensing point of view Anne is doing exactly the right thing — it’s just she’s beating her head against a brick wall of inevitability (sorry Anne!) … and it really shouldn’t be down to Anne: it’s SCM who have the UK rights on this one and who should be protecting their territory if this is really the way the trade wants to try to go.

          I hear what you say about authors and royalties loud and clear – but try explaining that to the end-customer, the prospective reader. Where prices are set fairly it’s not an issue: most UK customers will be perfectly happy to buy the UK edition.

          I guess it really does come down to agents to put up the best possible fight they can for global rights for their authors…

        • Hi Phil

          But the best deal for authors at the moment is for different contracts in the US and the UK. That just doesn’t always equate to the best deal for customers.

          Besides – just as buying from the local Christian bookstore supports their ministry (and is decided as such over other cheapre sources by people), buying the UK edition of a book may be seen as supporting the ministry of the author, even if it is more expensive. The cheaper option gives a short term gain but can reduce the number of British writers able to make a living from writing.

  7. Yes, the whole thing is ridiculous. Case in point: the Baker/Monarch History of the Church. Why buy a UK paperback when I can get a US hardback the same price or cheaper?

    • Seems rather appropriate in a black humour sort of way that on that page they should be advertising the free online & downloadable resource of:
      Employing Hope – Rebuilding life when you’ve lost your job’.

      Someone there is either being a little thoughtless or else (my personal favourite) is putting forward the advance help for those who shall be seriously effected by the push forward to e-books in a stunningly good satirical way!

      After all with the shrinking book sales and exploding ebook sales mentioned there can surely only be one conclusion and that is loss of jobs all round!
      Yes even in those missional communities (yes you know those ones with little electricity and access to modern communication methods and the kindle, the ones with poverty, war, famine & disease!!).
      After all where once people could have been involved in providing the tools, now instead they can provide the ebook!
      Of course that ebook will be produced and distributed online and all with the imput of probably about 5 maybe 10 humans, leaving many unemployed, impoverished and disheartened.
      Both where the ebook is produced and also in those missional fields!
      After all there are no printers and bookbinders needed, no warehouse staff and no delivery drivers, no bookshop staff etc etc, and the line does not stop there, there are of course all the ancilliary services that go when these ones go, canteen staff and other local economies too!
      But then thats ok, because in seconds anywhere in the world they can be downloading the free resource or helpful ebook on employing hope now their jobs are gone, but how long before due to the unemployment they can’t afford to do that?
      What are the stats on rising homelessness in the global recession in the USA alone (, let alone the problems of homelessness reported due to globalisation already.

      Sorry but to me that’s not really very missional on a global scale.
      But it does make wonderful financial economic sense if we don’t count the economic cost to individuals and communities!

    • Just a clarification on the ebook issue Phil – even they can be affected by the international rights issues.

      I get a lot of my ebooks from Powells, who also supply “real” books as well, but some electronic titles are only downloadable in the USA.

      So to buy them I either have to find a UK etailer listing the title, or find an American supplier who doesn’t ask for your postal address.

      I can understand authors selling the publishing rights for different countries, but doing that with electronic rights as well seems counter-intuitive.

      I hope this will not become an issue with Christian ebooks – hopefully Authentic’s position will set an example for other publishers wishing to enter the ebook market.

  8. Just an extra two penneth from a publisher perspective. We are having to do all our own distribution because the distributors want a minimum of 60% of rrp discount. We would rather give 40-50% discount to a retailer and supply direct than see all the money given to the big boys.
    When we went through a different publisher for one of our titles we were never paid any royalties and then they went out of business and just started another one.
    There are a lot of sharks in Christian Business who are more business and less Christian.

    How about we all try and put Christ in every thought, word and action and then see how we get on in business.

    Happy Celtic Advent (started 15th Nov 🙂


  9. As the publisher of one of the imprints which is under discussion here, let me briefly add two points which have not thus far been mentioned.

    Authors frequently want British and North American editions of their books. Distribution in overseas markets rarely achieves the same results as publication of a separate edition. All authors want the best that is available to them.

    Secondly, American book prices are cheaper because their print runs are higher – the market for a US edition of a theological book is roughly five times the size of the market here. It’s simple economies of scale. No publisher wants to price books out of the market.

  10. Yes, book buyers do not understand rights. Yes, look at France – all retailers there can only hold sales twice a year at specified periods. Who wins? Just the customer and Amazon. Publishers lose sales, authors suffer reduced royalties. Trouble is, some authors will give up traditional publishing and some publishers also will opt out, so then what will Amazon sell?

  11. Carole B,
    Then what will Amazon sell? Thats an easy one – kindle books! ;0)

    And sorry, but I don’t think book buyers do understand rights – for the majority what they understand boils down to what they want and the best price they can get for it, heck how can we expect book buyers to understand rights when it’s obvious half the book trade doesn’t understand rights!
    Like with Anne asking Amazon to take the book off as they want to do the right thing (for which I do commend them) – but have they asked the same question of Eden & Bookdepository, because they all have it.
    So it’s not a simple resolution or answer, the problem is complex and the problem is international, because there used to be a fair whack of US and AUS buyers buying/trying to buy UK editions of titles that had american/aus editions or forthcoming editons when I was doing spckonline and I don’t for a minute think that’s changed regardless of the exchange rate – a book buyer want’s what they want and if that’s the UK or US Edition then that’s what they want.

    On the author front though and royalties the truth is that what needs to happen is a fair payment regardless of boundary for authors full stop. But this has become even harder as resources dry up and as less is able to be invested in new authors or in establishing authors etc and this isn’t so much about rights as about the erosion of the value of a book! – and this is only set to get worse, hence why some authors are being left with little seeming choice but to go alternative publication routes.

    It is a sad situation for all really – by the way did anyone see that Borders is up for sale again?

  12. Hmmm. Isn’t this more complex.

    For example, do distribution costs not affect this argument. Add postage to the UK to the Amazon US price and what do you get?

    And, as mentioned, market size, binding quality, tissue paper, toilet paper, or real paper etc.

    Of course, the same arguments would not apply to E-Books, if we ignore editorial costs of translating them into English when they come here.

    • Paper weight and quality is irrelevant. In today’s world there is absolutely no need for the physical transhipment of books across vast distances: all it needs is for the digital file to be transferred — either to companies such as Lightning Source and Wipf & Stock or to a shop that has an Espresso Book Machine and the book can be printed, bound and finished within minutes (anywhere, in fact: bookshops themselves could soon become nothing more than vending machines).

      Another wake up call to publishers: your massive print runs are history! There is never any need for any book to go out of print or be unavailable for longer than a couple of weeks.

      But the sad fact is that most publishers are still living in the 19th century — yes, not even the 20th: POD (Print On Demand) services have been around since before the turn of the millennium; all that’s changed is they’ve got faster and cheaper.

      (Is that enough of a rant for you?? 😉 )

      • At the moment the PPB (Print Paper Binding) of an average paperback on a 10K print run is probably around 80p – £1; marketing may add another 75p; editorial costs the same. An author may get 20% of net price (so a book sold to a wholesaler for £3.50 that will be another 70p). A quick top line cost of a book is £3.20 (without the overheads and shipping costs). A £7.99 PoD book will cost significantly more than the PPB above, so the economics of this don’t seem to make sense for frontlist, unless I am missing something.

        I agree that it is a revolutionary way of connecting authors and readers, but the traditional supply chain of publisher-wholesaler-retailer will be out of the mix here.

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