First, a mini lesson in copyright and distribution.
When authors sell the distribution rights to their book, they are actually selling the right to print, publicize, and sometimes digitally distribute the work in certain geographical territories. The author (via her agent usually) sells the right to publish the work in specific formats; sometimes one publisher may have the print and digital distribution rights but another publisher the audio and sometimes digital rights are withheld from the publisher. JK Rowling, for example, famously refuses to have her work digitized so the pirates do it for her. Recently John Grisham agreed to have his works be available for sale in digital format.
So essentially an author has these bundles of rights. She, via her agent, gives these rights to someone else (a publisher) in exchange for advances against royalties, usually, but sometimes for a flat rate (like a film deal). These rights can be limited however the author wants including by type of distribution (i.e., audio, digital, print) and by geographical territories (like US or UK or Japan, etc).
What’s this have to do with digital booksellers?
In this international, internet marketplace, the burden is on the booksellers or retailers to honor the agreements between the authors and publishers by not selling books to customers outside the appropriate geographic/territorial regions. This is why to buy a Kindle e-book, you have to have a credit card with a US address. That is one way that a retailer can correctly police the rights agreements that publishers have with authors.
Problems arise when an etailer sells books to many different geographical territories with books subject to different agreements. For instance, Harlequin often buys world rights to its books (maybe it does all the time, I’m unsure). So a bookstore that sells Harlequin books would need technology to indicate where the payor is located. You can imagine that it becomes even more complicated if you have author A with sold rights to five regions and author B with sold rights to 8 regions and author C having sold rights to only one region.
What went wrong?
Some online retailers were not honoring that position and thus HBG took action to suspend the distribution of books until retailers could appropriately restrict access to those customers within the appropriate geographical region.
HBG is currently working with retailers and providing distribution access once the retailers work out the rights issue. Because some retailers didn’t initially honor those contractual territorial agreements, it seems like consumers are getting something taken away from them when it really shouldn’t have been provided (pursuant to the contract between the author and publisher) in the first place.
What can a reader do to effect some change?
While the resulting adverse customer action isn’t the fault of HBG, it is telling about the growing pains the publishing industry is suffering. Authors must sell world rights to their books in order for all readers, internationally, to have access. My suggestion is for international readers to email the author to express their desire for access to those books because it is the author who owns the rights to her book and it is she who must sell them in order for them to be legitimately available to you.
Hope that explains what is going on.