Recent comments on the blog, and emails to me, have brought up questions of distribution. Specifically, why is it that (for example) Australians can't buy English books in Australia, or German readers can't buy U.S. books in Germany?
The answer lies in the rights negotiated and granted in the original publishing contract.
Make no mistake: Publishers of all stripes have one thing in common. We want people buying and reading our books. At the end of the day, that's how we bring in money and pay the bills (including royalties to authors). We have no reason to ever knowingly or willfully prevent people from purchasing our products; doing so is against our self-interests.
Running up against our desire to sell books are two main impediments, however.
First, there is the issue of piracy, both domestic and international. As we have all discovered, it becomes next to impossible to control your intellectual property once it gets into digital format. Even with DRM (digital rights management), it's not hard for the tech-savvy to turn a purchased ebook into a file illegally uploaded to a fileshare site, while publishers watch almost helplessly as thousands of people illegally download the property, thus depriving us of revenue and our authors of money. For this reason, in the early days of ebooks, I was very much in favor of releasing ebooks only after a period of time had elapsed - the way we typically see a paperback come a while after the hardcover. The huge growth in fiction sales on Kindle, Nook, etc., has changed my mind somewhat; but make no mistake, the piracy issue is very much there and costs the industry billions of dollars per year in lost revenue.
Even with the printed book, there are certain international markets where printed piracy is the coin of the realm. These include China and India. A publisher may decide to do everything it is power to prevent printed books from reaching these markets, where copyright laws are laxly enforced. People will scan the book, then print it cheaply and sell it on the street; and I don't think we can be blamed for not wanting to support the black market. Of course, it's a losing battle because any pirate can go on eBay, get a copy of the book, and still sell illegal copies of it. So why would we spend all that time, money, paper, and distribution in getting books into areas where we'll lose our shirts?
Second is the issue of negotiated rights. Nowadays there really is no such thing as "the publisher" of a work. Agents negotiate rights of different kinds to different publishers, going with the highest bidder. Rights can and do include: hardback, trade paperback, mass-market paperback, ebook, serialization, and so on. And then add to that geographic rights: You can have U.S.rights, North American (U.S. & Canada rights), European rights, world rights, and so forth.
In the case of books written in English, an agent might decide that the best publisher in the U.S. is not the best publisher in another country with a sizable English-speaking population, such as Australia or the UK. Local/national publishers tend to be better with local marketing/publicity than the U.S. publisher, even though all the big houses have an international presence. We might be prevented from selling our book in Germany because the agent has a German publisher interested in bringing out both an English and a German version of the book simultaneously. And since the typical publishing contract is at its core an assignment of exclusive rights to sell the product, we may be prohibited from selling an eBook in markets to which we do not have the rights. This would explain why, for example, one of my books might not be available as an eBook in Australia.
Agents make their money by maximizing royalty revenue for authors, so they cannot be blamed for wanting to squeeze as much revenue as possible out of the granting of rights. But our industry is not predictable. The agent may not be able to sell any Australian rights at all; meanwhile, the U.S. publisher is prevented from selling books in Australia. Thus the Australian reader is left in the lurch. Unfortunately, there is nothing that publishers can do about this.
I have even heard stories recently about agents trying to sell print rights separately from ebook rights. Frankly, I think any editor who'd sign a contract like that should have his head examined. All of the work goes into the print product; why let some other publisher free-ride on the ebook sales? But, as I always say, we're in a new world with new technologies cropping up every day, and business models are changing, so we shall see what the future holds. At the end of the day, though, everyone needs to remember that publishing is a BUSINESS and publishers exist to make PROFIT. We're not nonprofit organizations, and we have the right to run our businesses in ways that minimize our costs and maximize our revenues.