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Wylie-Amazon e-books partnership gives in to Random House


Powerful agent Andrew Wylie's plan to sell the e-book backlist of some of his best-known authors -- among them John Updike, Ralph Ellison and Philip Roth -- has come mostly undone. The e-book venture, Odyssey Editions, is a partnership with bookseller Amazon.com that takes publishers out of the equation.

The premise is that Wylie and his clients (and their estates) would make more money if they sold e-book versions of older works in partnership with the online bookseller, rather than publishers. Since Vladimir Nabokov, for example, didn't sign a contract for the e-book version of "Lolita" -- because it was published in 1958 -- Wylie could claim the rights.

Not so fast, said Random House. It claimed e-book rights to 13 of the 20 books announced at Odyssey Editions' launch -- Nabokov didn't sign over the "Lolita" e-book rights to anybody else in the '50s, and he did sign a contract for selling the book in the U.S. To underscore its dissatisfaction with the arrangement, Random House, the world's biggest publisher, said it would cease to do business with Andrew Wylie, one of, if not the, most powerful literary agencies around.

That standoff -- extreme, and oddly public -- couldn't last. It's been just about a month since the conflict emerged, and on Tuesday, the two parties reached an agreement. Random House gets the e-book rights after all, and Andrew Wylie gets to do business with Random House again. In a joint statement posted at Publishers Weekly, they said:

"We are pleased to announce that The Wylie Agency and Random House have resolved our differences over the disputed Random House titles which have been included in the Odyssey Editions e-book publishing program. These titles are being removed from that program and taken off-sale.  We have agreed that Random House shall be the exclusive e-book publisher of these titles for those territories in which Random House U.S. controls their rights. The titles soon will be available for sale on a non-exclusive basis through all of Random House's current e-book customers. Random House is resuming normal business relations with the Wylie Agency for English-language manuscript submissions and potential acquisitions, and we both are glad to be able to put this matter behind us."

Did Wylie get anything else to sweeten the deal -- like a better cut on e-books than it was getting from Random House before? It's possible.

But as much as this was a fight between two powerful parties, it was also a window into how old publishing is moving into the brave new world (apologies to Aldous Huxley, whose novel was not in dispute). This latest move makes it look like traditional publishers may retain e-book rights, and the levels of control that they always have. But are there opportunities for authors -- and their agents -- who want to leverage their work in this new form? Will e-book publishers like Odyssey Editions and Jane Friedman's Open Road Media, which has e-book rights for works by Pat Conroy, Iris Murdoch and William Styron, wind up being interesting oddities or genuine alternatives?

We'll see. Seven authors remain in the Odyssey Editions e-book stable, including Oliver Sacks, Norman Mailer and William S. Burroughs. 

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: John Updike in 2000. Credit: Adam Van Doren / PBS

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This dispute, despite its resolution, underscores the fact that in the not-too-distant future, if one player (such as Amazon with their Kindle) becomes completely dominant in the e-reader world, it will be able to cut out the publisher completely on both old and new works. Amazon will negotiate directly with the author's agent to "publish" the author's latest novel. While they're probably already attempting this with lesser-selling authors, all it will take to get this ball really rolling is for one mega-author (a Dan Brown, or a James Patterson) to agree to place his new book directly in the hands of Amazon, with Amazon selling the book only on Kindle. (Amazon will reserve the right to print and sell hard copies, which they may initially need to do if there are enough dinosaurs like me left who have no desire to own an e-reader -- although before too long this segment of the market will become insignificant.) The author will sell fewer "copies" but still end up with more money because he'll receive a much bigger percentage than he was previously getting from her publisher. Amazon can initially reduce its own margin to make the book that much more attractive to the customer, and because the book is only on Kindle, people who didn't previously want a Kindle will feel the pressure to buy one if that's the only way to read the author's new work. Eventually, Amazon will be able to raise their prices significantly because of this mini-monopoly, and if we want to read the book we'll have no choice but to pay. From a business standpoint, I suppose it's all kosher. After all, new technologies have always made old products and professions obsolete. But what's scary is knowing that so much power (both price and intellectual), in a field as huge and ingrained and necessary as books, can end up in the hands of one company.


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