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Authors, publishers fight over digital rights: Why you should care

July 23, 2010

Andrew Wylie

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.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean permalink
    July 23, 2010 2:06 pm

    >>” … the literary world will devolve into a mobocracy of self-publishing, where all voices shout at the same volume.”>>

    jus like teh intertubz

    Your explanation of the value of gatekeeping in publishing could also apply to music. I don’t think of “backing” – as in a record advance, a producer and a promotional team – as virtuous per se. There are good and bad forms of underwriter input. (I’m sure that’s the case in publishing, too.) But overall, and with a few exceptions here and there, I’ll take some form of gatekeeping – a professional corps that recognizes talent – over a mass of band web pages on MySpace and CDBaby.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    July 23, 2010 2:29 pm

    I’m sure we’ll agree that the abdication of the gatekeeping function is one of the things that most damaged newspapers…

  3. Ghost of Blooms Passed permalink
    July 23, 2010 9:42 pm

    Chauncey, don’t you get it? It’s all over. Mr Paper has been lynched by the technofascists mobs and the slave-like public just wants their daily hit of YouTube snark. Newspapers are dead. Books are dead. Your role is over. Get over it. And answer your emails, you snob!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 24, 2010 10:59 am

      Get over it! I just love the rhetorical sophistication that characterizes the Internet, don’t you? What incisive intellectual commentary!

      Alas, I must take issue with your facts: Print may be dying (or it may be in the process of euthanization), but it ain’t dead yet. The American Association of Publishers reports that sales for adult hardcovers were up 6.9 percent for 2009, earning $1.5 billion, while total book sales increased 4.1 percent for a total of $11.2 billion (paperbacks, e-books, text books, childrens, etc).

      Hmmm. Eleventy point two billion buckeroos? I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on TV, but methinks this patient still has a pulse.

      As for answering my emails, I have no idea what you’re talking about.

  4. Connie permalink
    July 26, 2010 3:49 pm

    It’s always chilling to me to see people cheering the death of the gatekeeper function (and I see it from writer “friends” on FB from time to time). I guess they don’t need editors? Publishers and editors err, sure, but the fact remains that talent isn’t democratic. Not everybody has it. That’s why you need gatekeepers.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 27, 2010 2:37 pm

      And there will always be gatekeepers, only know they will be Amazon, Apple and Google.

  5. July 26, 2010 5:00 pm

    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.

    The free Kindle application runs on iPhones, iPod Touches, iPads, PCs, Macs, and devices (mostly phones) that run Google’s Android. So, technically, you don’t need a Kindle to read Kindle books.

    There are also many people who have Sony Readers, Nooks, and other digital reading devices that manage to strip the DRM off the Kindle-formatted ebooks, convert the files, and then read them on their non-Kindle devices…Not that I would encourage anyone to do something illegal…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 27, 2010 2:38 pm

      I can’t even change the oil in my car, so don’t expect me to strip the DRM (whatever that is) from anything….

      • July 27, 2010 3:11 pm

        Digital Rights Management. It’s the copy protection. And no, I can’t change the oil on my car either.🙂

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