As many of you may know, I’m an American expat, living in Southeast Asia. Yesterday my husband asked me to order a technical book. Since we were in a hurry to receive it, we obviously preferred getting the book in question in electronic form, as opposed to waiting for international shipping.
First I went to the publisher’s site, to see if by any chance they sold a PDF (our format of choice). All they had were links to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and iTunes. We don’t have either a Kindle or a Nook, but we do have Android tablets, so I figured I’d go to B&N (just to fight the A* monopoly) and order from there.
Logged in to B&N. Ordered the book. Paid (with a US credit card). Discovered that I couldn’t download the book until I’d “registered a Nook”. The links to download the app led me to the Android PlayStore. Knowing that you have to actually be connected via an Android device to download an app, I fired up my husband’s tablet and searched on the PlayStore for “Nook App”. The app didn’t show up, no matter what search criteria I used. Hmm. I tried going to the B&N site via the tablet and clicking on the download link. This time I got to the app page, where I found a message saying that distribution of the app was restricted to users in the United States.
(Web applications can tell where you are located based on the IP address used in your connection. There are ways to get around this, but they’re somewhat awkward.)
WTF? I already paid my money for a book, and now I can’t read it?! After a rather acerbic exchange via online chat with B&N customer service, I got an agreement to refund our money. I also registered my displeasure with their policy, which to my mind borders on fraud.
Okay. I resigned myself to buying from Amazon. First I’ll go download the Kindle app, I thought. Avoid the previous problem, right? I was pleased to see that the Kindle app was pre-loaded on the tablet. Great! I registered the app with Amazon. Then I went to the Amazon page on my desktop (mobile connections are FAR less secure than wired connections) to buy the book.
Guess what? The Kindle book is not for sale in my region! Only in the US! Or in the UK if I want to go to amazon.co.uk or in Germany via amazon.de, or amazon.au in Australia. And so on.
Why is this relevant to writers (other than giving me a chance to vent LOL)? Because this experience hammered home a disturbing fact. If your book is available only on B&N and/or Amazon, it’s literally inaccessible to readers outside of the US and a few other rich Western countries. This greatly restricts your distribution. There are 3 billion readers in China. Perhaps more relevant, there are 1.25 billion in India, a country where all the educated class speaks and reads English. (I just acquired a very enthusiastic Indian reader.) Then there’s Singapore (5 million) and Malaysia (80 million), both members of the Commonwealth and English-literate. And so on.
The lesson for me? Be sure your ebooks are available from alternative sources like Smashwords, All Romance Ebooks, Kobo, and so on, who do not restrict their distribution based on geography. Otherwise, you’re throwing away a huge potential market.
Postscript: Several people have noted that it's possible to get around this by using a VPN (Virtual Private Network). However, this requires a certain level of technical expertise and/or money. Given how hard it is to get readers, do we authors really need this extra barrier? Someone else told me there's a button on Amazon to "change my region". I haven't checked this out yet, but let me just say - I didn't notice it.