A lot of indie authors start to explore foreign markets for their books. This, however, is not simply a matter of translating your book and uploading it. Every country has its own unique laws, and as such it sometimes requires a little more research and even legal advice before you can enter into a foreign market.
Germany, for example, is often mentioned as an interesting emerging market, but has several peculiarities in comparison to the US market:
- Book titles are copyrighted. I don’t know many countries that copyright book titles. In Germany, they do. This means, you can be sued if you are using a book title that has been used before. And while there is a site that helps you to research your title before using it (https://www.vlb.de/), this alone is not enough, because the catalogue may not contain a book that isn’t published anymore but has still a copyrighted title. If you have chosen your title, you commonly run an ad in a trade magazine called “Börsenblatt des Buchhandels” (http://www.boersenblatt.net/), to alert other publishers you will be using the title and give them time to investigate if it infringes their rights. Some German indie authors told me though, they didn’t check their titles and haven’t been sued yet.
- Germany has a net price system for books. This means, you (as the publisher) set a price for your book. This price is valid for at least 18 months. If you sell your book for 3.99, you are not allowed to lower the price to 1.99 or 2.99 before the 18 months are over. Only after a period of 18 months you are allowed to officially renounce the fixed price, and change the price as you see fit. This has been done to protect writers. Once the publisher has set a price, everyone is required to sell the book at the fixed price, no discounts allowed, so the writer gets the highest royalty on every sale. This rule has been challenged a few times and there are several trials going on to determine the exact ramifications for e-book promotions. In general, giving away a book for free for a promotion should not infringe the net price system, since “free” is not a price, and hence the price restrictions don’t apply. However, even that has been challenged recently by an association of 600 German book-traders that sued Amazon and one of the major German publishers because they ran a free promotion on Amazon (for Dan Brown’s Illuminati, by the way) – however, their arguments are a bit shaky and as for now it’s unclear if their case will hold up in court. (Update 2016/03/30 – The court now confirmed the fact that free promotions do not infringe the net price system.)
- Copyright in Germany can’t be sold. The exact translation of the German term is “Creator’s Right” and it can’t be sold because the creator always stays the creator, except perhaps if he travelled back in time and made someone else write the book. However, you can sell “exploitation rights” to your book, that is, you can transfer the right to sell and market your book, to make a movie based on it and so on. However, since the copyright will always stay with you, you never will be completely void of rights for things you have created. You can withdraw exploitation rights under certain conditions. This, again, has been done to protect “creators of art” at large, and to make sure they always have a chance to cash in on their art if others make money with it. However, even translators are considered to be “creators of art”, because when translating something you can’t just use words with the exact same meaning in another language, but you have to choose from context what expressions come closest to the original. When two translators translate the same book, the result will still be different. Because of this “freedom” that requires creative thinking, translators always acquire copyright of their translation. While you still hold the original copyright when employing a translator for German, you will have another copyright-holder for the German edition. And this means, your translator cannot be bought off with a one-time sum. He may agree to do just that – remember that the average German is not a lawyer and often unaware of specific laws – but even if he does, and he learns later he can ask for more, you will have to share royalties with your translator, no matter what a contract says, because codified laws always overrule a written contract (i.e. you cannot make a contract that breaks standing laws). See (4).
- Contracts are just pieces of papers with a lot of words on it. This hold true for pretty much every country. Having a contract means pretty much nothing if the contract doesn’t hold up in a court of law. Every country has another legal system, and if you are unfamiliar with the specifics, it may often seem overwhelmingly different. Germany has a codified law, which means contracts are usually pretty short. If you are hired by a German company, any employment contract will usually have something like 3 or 5 pages, many contracts have only 1 or 2 pages. This is due to the fact that many rules are already in place and it is not possible to override them with contracts, and even if you do, those paragraphs don’t really matter because no court would enforce it. Some people, of course, consciously insert things into the contract although they know it would not hold up – they just do that, because people who know little about the specific laws most probably will believe it’s true when written in a contract and stick to the rule. Again – most people are not lawyers. So, even if you make a contract with your translator and you write specifically that US law applies to the translation, it may not be worth much, if your translator lives in Germany. He can always try to involve a German court and apply the German law, since not only he resides in Germany, but mainly because your book is primarily targeted at German customers who live in Germany – for a German court these all are indications that German law should apply, and not US law. Of course, you can hire a translator who lives in the US, e.g. a German-born naturalized American, since you both probably will be happy to deal with US law only.
- Amazon accounts for about 50% of the German ebook market. Roughly the other half is dominated by Tolino (http://mytolino.de). So if you publish only on Amazon, you will miss half of the German market. Tolino is a brand name for an enterprise by two major publishers (Weltbild and Thalia) and Deutsche Telekom (the mother company of T-Mobile USA). They don’t distribute the books themselves – so you won’t find direct sales of e-books on their website. Their e-books are distributed through the online channels of the German book trade, meaning you can buy them across dozens of small, mid-sized and big online shopping sites, such as www.thalia.de or www.buch.de. However, many German writers seem to go through www.neobooks.de. This is actually the website of a publishing company. They let writers publish directly there (probably to reduce their slush pile), but if a book picks up speed, they offer regular trade contracts. The fact that Amazon doesn’t dominate the market is also true for a range of other countries. The world’s fastest growing ebook market – China – sells most ebooks via Zhangyue. They seem to have around 500 million registered users today. The second biggest ebook retailer – China Telekom – has around 230 million registered users. So, if you are thinking about pursuing the Chinese market (that is way bigger than the German market anyway), be sure to do your research on where to publish.
- What about a nom-de-plume? Even in the US there are some constraints to think about (see e.g., http://www.ivanhoffman.com/pennames.html). The implications vary from country to country. It may or may not be legal to publish under a pseudonym – in most countries, though, it is perfectly legal. Sometimes, as in China, you have to register the pen name first with the authorities. In Germany, using a pseudonym is legal in most cases, and you don’t have to register it (though Germans can choose to register it officially, if they want to). You may touch trademark rights, if you choose to publish as “Karl Marx” or “Angela Merkel” or any other well-known name. In Switzerland names are protected by a specific law. So if there is a real person with the same name, he may sue you under the Swiss name law.
When most people hear about the complications that may occur, they often lament the “legal uncertainties” of other countries. I talked to a lot of writers who told me that publishing in Germany can be “dangerous” because their “strange laws”. I guess, the exact same thing might be said by German writers – their perspective on the US market probably is one of “dangerous territory” too, since contracts often run for dozens of pages, your copyright can be signed away, and there is no codified law to refer to. However, all of this is standard practice for so many businesses out there. The European Union has been working on unifying much of the laws of its countries, but still has a long way to go to one common codified European law. It is very probable that many things will change down the road, when more single-person-businesses are trying to enter a global market.
Legal restrictions are not the only obstacle when going global. There is also the fact that you are writing for another audience in another country. Tastes in literature vary. Over time, most American story-telling has proven to be “globally enabled” – the stories work in most countries, no matter if you look at blockbuster novels or bestselling books. There may be themes, though, that may be be seen differently. An example is The Teeth of the Tiger by Tom Clancy. In most European countries he was widely criticized for the book, because for most Europeans it seemed to express too much of a “globocop” view than they could bear (many Europeans don’t like it when Americans think they are entitled to be something like the global police force, making the world safe for democracy). However, the image of the US has tremendous influence on European society – some countries (such as Germany) even introduced Halloween because they saw it on TV for decades.
Most Europeans today know, there are differences between how Americans see things and how they see them, and they are willing to accept those differences in a story. They may not always understand, “why showing nipples is something bad and showing a gun is something good” (a common topic in Europe when talking about the US), but they will go with it.
As for the cover and fonts, all the publishers I talked to told me, they always make a new cover for every country, because people always have different associations when seeing a picture. For Germany, they work with German artists in order to find a cover design that appeals to the German audience in much the same way they work with an American artist to find a cover design that resonates well with an American audience. I am not entirely sure if there is a measurable impact of a country-specific cover design. However, if you hired an artist, make at least sure that you have complete global distribution rights for the cover, including for all the photos that have been used in making it. Some artists may only sell rights for North American distribution, and while this doesn’t matter if a German buys this book (because it still is targeted at an American audience and not specifically marketed to Germans), it certainly matters if you publish the book in Germany.
Having said all that – what does it mean? Where does that leave us?
Well, I think that all those legal issues are important, and my advice would be to find a partner for every country you intend to publish in. You will have to share royalties (at the very least), but you will have a native who takes care of the whole publishing process for you in your chosen market, who will take care of the translation, the editing and the specifics of a country unfamiliar to you.
I am pretty certain, that writers will network in that respect. There will be German, French, Italien, American, Japanese, Chinese writers who probably will end up cooperating. While the German writer will translate the American book into his language and take care of the publication process and probably even translate his book into English, the American writer might edit it and take care of the publication process in the US. Probably we will witness the evolvement of new services of people who want a share of your revenues, and for that they will translate and publish the book and even do marketing in their country. It already has begun with people doing exactly this, organizing themselves on the Kindle forum or elsewhere. Probably it will only be a matter of time before someone thinks of putting up a site that enables writers to find global cooperations to broaden their business.
As for me, I have partnered up with a German and a Chinese. I don’t know yet where this will take me, but I most certainly will report back to you. 🙂