Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Wylie v. Amazon v. Random House Part I

It’s been forever since we’ve had a decent slapfight between publishing powerhouses.

I mean, it feels like years have passed since Macmillan and Amazon had their superpowered staring contest. (Apparently, it was only February.)

Well, we’ve got fresh blood, and the melee involves Amazon, Random House and the Wylie Agency. For those who don’t know, the Wylie Agency is one of the most powerful literary agencies in the business. It represents authors like Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and the estates of Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer.

Random House is the largest trade book publisher. By far.

And Amazon is Amazon.

So we’re pretty much talking Muhammad Ali v. Superman v. Andre the Giant.

It began when the Wylie Agency made a deal with Amazon. Twenty of the most famous titles they represent — including Lolita, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and John Updike’s Rabbit series — will only be available on e-book through Kindle. (Wylie Agency functions as the agent and the publishing house in this agreement. Amazon is simply the distributor.)

Random House, which (wrongly) feels like it has claim to the digital rights to some of these titles, has stated they will no longer do business with any Wylie Agency authors until this issue is resolved.

“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,” said Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, said in a
news release.

Wylie declined to discuss Random House’s reaction with The New York Times and said he would have to think about it. (How novel, someone thinking before they comment.)

The Writers Guild has weighed in on several facets of the fracas. I tend to agree with their stances.

One, digital rights are not retroactively awarded to those who have the print rights, despite what Random House claims. New media, new income stream — new contract. It is that simple.

Two, does Amazon really need more power?

“Moreover, Amazon’s power in the book publishing industry grows daily,” the guild writes. “Few publishers have the clout to stand up to the online giant, which dominates every significant growth sector of the book industry: e-books, online new books, online used books, downloadable audio, and on-demand books. (That Random House, by far the largest trade book publisher, has retaliated against the powerful Wylie Agency but not against Amazon, which must be equally culpable in Random House’s view, tells you all you need to know about where power truly lies in today’s publishing industry.) Adding to Amazon’s strength may yield short-run benefits, but it’s not in the interests of a healthy, competitive book publishing market.”

Finally, the guild asserts, “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 ... 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.”

The fight has just begun. I await the next body blow.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. By the way, Tricia, I loved the point Flora Dempsey's mother makes. Many grieving parents, siblings and friends have talked to me about "the myth of closure."

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