Gladiators

Once again there’s drama in the ungoverned badlands of eBook rights, with Amazon, once more, prominently at the center.

Its ally this time around is hard-hitting agent Andrew Wylie. Late last Wednesday, Wylie announced the formation of its own publishing venture, Odyssey Editions, which will be publishing the eBook titles of some of his biggest-selling authors and supplying them to the Amazon Kindle store. Twenty major backlist works, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, John Updike’s Rabbit books, The Stories of John Cheever, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, will be Amazon’s exclusive property for two years.

Not for nothing is Wylie nicknamed “the Jackal,” and this is a pretty overt bit of aggressive side-taking. For one thing, there’s that “exclusive” clause, and though the Kindle app is available on a range of platforms, the deal is still funneling everything through one all-powerful conduit. And the Wylie Agency’s new incarnation as publisher effectively cuts any other house out of the deal. Random House, which publishes most of the print editions of the titles in question, responded immediately, noting that it was disputing Amazon’s rights to the titles and planned to take “appropriate action.”

This was followed up by MacMillan CEO John Sargent, champion of the Big Six version of the little guy, with a public statement on the MacMillan website:

I understand why Amazon wants an exclusive deal with Andrew. They have asked us too for exclusive product, as has every major retailer we deal with. This is smart retailing, and a great deal for Amazon. But it is an extraordinarily bad deal for writers, illustrators, publishers, other booksellers, and for anyone who believes that books should be as widely available as possible. This deal advantages Amazon, which already has the dominant share in this market.

Random House then stepped up with their appropriate action, which, appropriately, turned out to be a refusal to do any future business with the Wylie Agency “until this situation is resolved.”

Fair enough. Reactions to the dispute have been predictably all over the board, from predictions of Armageddon in the Guardian to the New York Times‘ vaguely condescending designation as a fuss. There’s plenty of opportunity for all kinds of narrow focus to fit anyone’s point of view, and a lot of trees obscuring this particular forest (if trees aren’t too inappropriate a metaphor here). To that end Evan Schnittman, at Black Plastic Glasses, has a solidly holistic overview that’s worth reading through:

The net result of this practice is that no one can create anywhere near a coherent marketing and publicity program for trade books as no one knows who owns what. Furthermore, it is impossible to align efforts, as competing publishers often own different portions of rights to the same work. It’s the authors who suffer in the end….

Divide and conquer is a very dangerous game as it tries to create the greatest short-term value for a work by selling off the sum of the individual rights. However, a book’s value is a very gestalt concept. The whole work has FAR greater value than the sum of the individual rights. Allowing each individual part, or right, to be disaggregated and auctioned to the highest bidder serves only those who make profit from short-term gain.

The fact that this is all playing out in the open invites a whole lot of kibitzing, and I’d venture to say that’s half the point. My answer to Jacket Copy‘s question about the utility of a public battle—“Surely someone at the Wylie Agency has Random House’s phone number”—is that this is just another version of 21st-century version of Christians and lions for our entertainment just as much as a whole lot of people’s livelihoods at stake. It’s no accident that a public venue online is called a forum, and even less so that lately we’re all encouraged to give everything a thumbs-up or not. I’m assuming there’s a lot more maneuvering taking place behind the scenes, and that this particular power play isn’t settled yet by any means. But what we can see is turning out to be an interesting sort of litmus for the industry, and bears watching.

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