Authors, publishers fight over digital rights: Why you should care
It’s impossible to root for either side in the digital rights battle pitting agent Andrew Wylie and Amazon on one side, with Random House and the rest of the publishing establishment on the other. Who’s looking out for readers, or for that matter, book culture? No one.
At stake is untold millions in revenue for publishers and/or authors. The hullabaloo erupted Wednesday when Wylie, who represents 700 authors or their estates, announced he would bypass publishers to sell backlist e-books directly through Amazon via its own new imprint, Odyssey Editions.
Wylie is agent to some of the greatest writers of recent times. Odyssey Editions’ initial list, selling for Amazon’s standard $9.99, includes authors like Martin Amis, Saul Bellow, William Burroughs, Philip Roth, John Cheever, Louise Erdrich and Evelyn Waugh.
Random House, which has long published Wylie authors such as Salmon Rushdie and John Updike, reacted angrily on Thursday, challenging Wylie’s right “to legally sell these titles,” and vowing not to enter into “any new English-language business agreements with the Wylie Agency until this situation is resolved.”
The problem is that when Random House signed most of Wylie’s clients, digital books had not even been imagined yet. As a result, contracts are silent on who owns e-book rights. Publishers — which rely on backlist sales for much of their revenue — understandably claim digital rights are implied in those existing contracts.
Authors (or their estates), on the other hand, have traditionally received royalties of 25 percent on printed books. They (or their heirs and representatives) want to know why they should not get at least 50 percent on digital books. After all, with no printing or transportation expense, it costs almost nothing to produce one.
This issue will loom ever larger as e-books grow in popularity. As Jason Pinter writes at the Huffington Post, five years ago the Kindle did not exist. Pinter quotes Random House’s own Gina Centrello, president and publisher, as predicting recently that digital books will “represent 50 percent of the market in five years.” Last year, e-books amounted to 3 percent of book sales.
Pinter, a thriller writer who used to work in publishing, calls Wylie’s move “nothing short of catastrophic” for publishers, while the Guardian‘s Richard Lea uses all kinds of end-time terminology — “apocalypse,” “Armageddon” — in his analysis.
It’s hard for me to muster much sympathy for publishers. Wylie’s been grumbling about publishers’ recalcitrance on the digital royalties issue for months, so it’s not like they didn’t now something was about to happen. These are the same outfits that collaborated with the bookstore chains in the 1980s to put independent booksellers out of business.
And of course writers deserve a bigger piece of the pie.
And yet publishers remain necessary for their function as gatekeepers and promoters of new and established authors. Without book editors at the major and minor houses seeking good work, the literary world will devolve into a mobocracy of self-publishing, where all voices shout at the same volume.
By signing a two-year agreement with Amazon, Wylie has shown its disdain for readers, writers and literary culture. How? Got an iPad or a Nook? Too bad for you. You can only download Odyssey Editions on a Kindle.
This strengthens the already dominant player in the world of books–Amazon –and weakens publishing companies which may have no choice but to lay off more editors and publicists – a dire outcome, indeed, for anyone who loves books and authors and good writing more than, say, the cheapest possible price on the download of Lolita.