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Random House, Wylie and Amazon: Why the public tussle?

July 22, 2010 |  1:49 pm
Ralphellison_1972

I admit, sometimes the questions I ask on Jacket Copy are somewhat rhetorical, but this is not one of those times. What, exactly, is going on with powerful agent Andrew Wylie and Amazon.com and Random House? What do the parties stand to gain from having a public scuffle over e-book rights?

Late Wednesday night, Amazon.com announced it had struck a two-year exclusive deal with several of Wylie's clients to offer e-books for the Kindle. Twenty of the biggest titles in 20th-century fiction -- including Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," "Portnoy's Complaint" by Philip Roth and "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov -- would be available only on the Kindle (and Kindle apps). They would not be sold through Apple's iBook store or any other e-book retailer.

This seemed like quite a score for Amazon, and positioned the Wylie Agency as a new and formidable player on the e-book landscape. But today Random House, which controls many of the titles, called foul. In a statement, Random House, the biggest of the big six publishers, said:

Last night, we sent a letter to Amazon disputing [the Wylie Agency's] rights to legally sell these titles, which are subject to active Random House publishing agreements. Upon assessing our business options, we will be taking appropriate action.

Clearly, Ralph Ellison wasn't thinking about e-book rights when he published "Invisible Man" in 1952. But now publishers -- and agents -- are. Those rights, especially with a book like "Invisible Man," which finds its way to many syllabuses, can be valuable.

Is that the reason for the public fight? Surely someone at the Wylie Agency has Random Houses' phone number. If they wanted to cut a deal with Amazon.com -- a company Random House has maintained a strong alliance with  -- certainly the deal could have been negotiated in board rooms and over coffee, or however the big guys of publishing make these things happen.

Instead, we see a late-night announcement, followed by a public statement threatening "appropriate action." Why take it public? Are we supposed to choose sides? Which one appears to be the winner?

-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus

Photo: Ralph Ellison and his second wife, Fanny, at home in 1972. Credit: Nancy Crampton / Knopf


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