27 July 10 | Chad W. Post

Last Thursday the publishing news of month year century broke with the announcement that the Andrew Wylie Literary Agency (one of the largest, most powerful, most intimidated, most unscrupulous literary agencies out there) had launched Odyssey Editions so they could publish ebook editions of a number of backlist titles by the best-selling Wylie represents, such as Midnight’s Children, Invisible Man, Lolita, Portnoy’s Complaint, Borges’s Ficciones, Brideshead Revisited, and many more.

Approximately 5 minutes after this was announced the entire book world went a little bit apeshit.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this, although it is sort of a wet dream for anyone really interested in the future of the business of publishing . . . To an outside reader, this might seem pretty mundane—suddenly some famous books are available for the Kindle—but it’s actually a very layered story, the ramifications of which will be playing out for months and months to come.

Maybe the easiest way to unpack this is to go through each of the parties involved and look at their level of pissed. And there’s no better place to start than Random House.

Frequent readers of this blog are most likely aware of my skepticism with regard to the big corporate commercial publishing model. These presses do amazing, fantastic books—immediate case in point is David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet—but I can’t say I’m a big fan of the way they rely on the blockbuster model, on producing more and more books to outrace returns, etc., etc. There’s no need to rehash all the “This is the End of Publishing! We’re all gonna die!” lines of thought, but it’s worth pointing out that ebooks are one of the crucial issues—how much they’ll sell for, what royalties should be, how this could jack a press’s cash flow, and so on.

From a publisher’s perspective, Wylie’s move is pretty much a direct assault. First off, there’s the whole question of whether this is even legal. Prior to the advent of ebooks, contracts would usually assign a publisher the right to “print, publish, and sell the work in book form,” which, pretty typical when it comes to book contracts, is a bit vague. I don’t know exactly what’s in a Random House contract, but obviously royalties rates for hardcover and paperback editions are stated, as are any and all subrights, such as splits for film or foreign sales. But what’s missing from most all of these is any mention of ebooks. Who really knew this would be an issue? And besides, doesn’t “book form” include electronic versions? It’s still a book, right?

At least that’s the line of argument that most publishers try and promote. Little problem is that almost ten years ago, before the Kindle was a glimmer in Jeff Bezos’s eye, Random House filed an injunction against the epublisher Rosetta Books, claiming that Rosetta had violated Random’s rights by publishing e-versions of a number of Random House titles. Unfortunately—for Random—they lost. (Here’s another summary of the case.)

This test case established that unless specifically noted in a contract, an author owns the ebook rights to their works. Therefore, the estates technically control ebook rights for all of these classic titles that Wylie represents, thus allowing him to either a) sell the ebook rights to the highest bidder or b) simply publish them himself.

When I was in France last fall for the study trip, this issue came up once or twice. Our trip took place shortly after Jane Friedman had launched Open Road Media and had bought the ebooks rights to a bunch of William Styron titles out from under Random House. A few of the big publishing people who were on the trip argued that rights situation aside, this was really offensive, since [insert publisher here] made all the original investments to promote these titles and help establish them as “important works.”

And it is true that Wylie is riding a bit on the coattails of those who came before him. Does Odyssey need a marketing budget to promote The Adventures of Augie March? Fuck and no. It’s Saul Bellow for Christ’s sake. Just let people know it exists and that’s good enough. (At the moment the sales ranking for the Odyssey edition of Lolita is #577.)

So, insulted, irritated, and whatever, Random House issued a missive against Wylie, including this awesome section:

The Wylie Agency’s decision to sell e-books exclusively to Amazon for titles which are subject to active Random House agreements undermines our longstanding commitments to and investments in our authors, and it establishes this Agency as our direct competitor. Therefore, regrettably, Random House on a worldwide basis will not be entering into any new English-language business agreements with the Wylie Agency until this situation is resolved.

Maybe New Directions will be able to retain the rights to all the Bolano books they’ve been publishing . . .

Oh, and yeah, if I didn’t mention it before, Odyssey books are only available through Amazon. Which pissed off a few other groups of people, including independent bookstores and readers who don’t use a Kindle.

Michael Orthofer has a great post about this whole situation that touches on the Amazon-exclusive issue. In many ways, this is unfortunate, but whatever. I’m not entirely sure Wylie is really trying to “reach readers” at all—this seems more like a provocation to increase ebook royalties while making a little quick money for some of his big time authors.

On the independent bookstore front, Square Books in Oxford, MS, put together a Wylie World display featuring books that are “not for sale”:

Amazon manufactures a reading device, the “kindle,” which requires its owners to buy digital merchandise exclusively from Amazon – a bit like our selling you books that you could read only by using the bedside lamp you must also purchase from us. And this would be the only way you could read these books. Wylie’s authors’ electronic books will be available only via the kindle, only via Amazon, a soiling of first amendment principles that many of the agency’s authors, such as Arthur Miller and Salman Rushdie, have fought so hard to protect.

As you look at this display, we encourage you to think about the ramifications of this effort to vertically integrate the book industry and limit or exclude access to information and free expression. And, as always, we encourage you to support independent booksellers everywhere. Together we can let books live.

Again, not breaking news that indie stores are in trouble and that ebooks are disruptive to their (struggling) business model as well. But this display illustrates the level of pissed that’s going on at both of the key players in this deal. Publishers have their own issues with Amazon and seem a bit more focused on Wylie, the rights issue, the possibility that other agents could do something similar . . .

Or, other agents could at least start demanding higher royalty rates for ebooks. Enter stage right—the Authors Guild, who issued an interesting statement that has four main points: 1) yes yes yes authors control their ebook rights and publishers can suck it, 2) it’s scary when an agent becomes a publisher, 3) exclusive deal with Amazon equals bad, and 4) this is all a result of stingy publishers:

To a large extent, publishers have brought this on themselves. This storm has long been gathering. Literary agencies have refused to sign e-rights deals for countless backlist books with traditional publishers, even though they and their clients, no doubt, see real benefits in having a single publisher handle the print and electronic rights to a book. Knowledgeable authors and agents, however, are well aware that e-book royalty rates of 25% of net proceeds are exceedingly low and contrary to the long-standing practice of authors and publishers to, effectively, split evenly the net proceeds of book sales.

Bargain-basement e-book royalty rates will not last. Low e-book royalty rates will, as e-book sales become increasingly important, emerge as a dealbreaker for authors with negotiating leverage. Publishers will, inevitably, agree to reasonable royalties rather than lose their bestselling authors to more generous rivals and startups. We suspect publishers are well aware of this and are postponing the unavoidable because it seems to make sense in the short run. We believe this is short-sighted.

(My absolute favorite line from this release: “A major agency starting a publishing company is weird, no matter how you look at it.” Yeah. Totally weird.)

Who knows what’s really going to happen with all of this. As Boyd Tonkin stated in this post, “Wylie aims to provoke, and to annoy. He has done both.” These ebook concerns have been brewing for a long time (the Rosetta thing is ten years old, the Authors Guild has been bitching about ebook royalties for years), and it’s interesting to see that Wylie’s forced the issue now, a couple weeks before the entire publishing industry tends to shut down, only to emerge in the pre-Frankfurt build-up . . .

In the end, I’m more fascinated by this whole situation that concerned about it. It does totally suck that we don’t have ebook rights to most of our titles—mainly because foreign publishers were really reluctant to include these in a pre-Kindle world—and that now the agents have a bit more power in terms of negotiating with us over these rights. It sucks that I sort of respect Wylie for throwing down the gauntlet and livening up the whole ebook debate. It sucks that I don’t have time to reread Lolita (although I would read the actual paperback edition).

But it’s great that this publishing kerfuffle lead to the creation of the EvilWylie and GoodRandomHouse twitter accounts. Not the funniest of twitter accounts, but still, it’s fun to see tweets like this:

EvilWylie Thank you for following! Evil Wylie has granted you exclusive rights to turn JaneFriedman’s tweets into a musical.

EvilWylie even sent one directly to me . . . After grumbling about how stupid Arizona is as a state and baseball team for trading Dan Haren to the Angels (he should've come back to the Cardinals), I was informed that EvilWylie had negotiated that deal. Bastard!


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