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Wylie’s War

The big news rocking the publishing world is that Andrew Wylie is thumbing his nose at the publishing companies.(1) The Wylie Agency (run by Mr. Wylie) signed an exclusive ebook deal with Amazon.com to release to release 20 title on the Kindle, with the possibility of more.

Everyone in the industry–publishers, agents, and even authors–are in a tizzy over this, but publishers especially. The books Wylie Agency chose for this deal where not books never before published. Instead, 1980s and earlier classics where chosen, books still in print in physical form by large publishing houses like Random House. Wylie chose a small selection of popular books from a time when publishing contracts didn’t include a clause dealing with ebook rights and went around the publishing houses to release them as ebooks.

This has lead people to ask, “Why this move?” As the LA Times put it:(2)

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?

The answer is that this action by Wylie Agency was a shot across the bow. There was plenty of back room negotiations, but that wasn’t working to Wylie’s satisfaction. A Harvard Magazine profile of Wylie prior to the news of this deal with Amazon lays out the situation:(3)

Wylie’s negotiations with publishers on the book industry’s version of the iPod, e-books, are currently on hold across the board. He’s dissatisfied with the terms publishers have been offering for e-book rights, which were not widely foreseen and are not allocated in most extant book contracts. In fact, Wylie threatens to monetize those unassigned rights by going outside the publishing business entirely: “We will take our 700 clients, see what rights are not allocated to publishers, and establish a company on their behalf to license those e-book rights directly to someone like Google, Amazon.com, or Apple. It would be another business, set up on parallel tracks to the frontlist book business.” Such a heretical strategy would likely meet with stiff resistance from publishing houses, which have invested years, even decades, and millions of dollars in establishing their authors as brand names in the marketplace by printing, promoting, and selling their books.

Unable to bring publishers to terms he wanted, Wylie made good on his threat.

It is fascinating to watch this unfold. Random House’s reaction was swift and stern, as The New York Times reported:(4)

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,” Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, said in a news release on Thursday. “Therefore, regrettably, Random House on a worldwide basis will not be entering into any new English-language business agreements with the Wylie Agency until this situation is resolved.”

Other responses were more muted. John Sargent, the chief executive of Macmillan criticized Mr. Wylie for cutting an exclusive deal with Amazon. Mr. Wylie, however, remains unrepentant. Since news of the deal initial broke, he has gone on to threaten(5) “a broad expansion of his digital publishing business to include up to 2,000 titles if traditional publishers refuse to improve digital royalties.”

I don’t have a horse in this particular race, but if someone asked me I would advise all parties involved to be very careful. I don’t think publishers have been fair to authors as far as royalty payments for ebooks. And, though I am no legal scholar, I think Wylie was within his legal rights to release ebook titles for books with no contract clause assigning those rights. Whether it was wise for him to spite the publishing houses in this way is a different question entirely.

In any case, I don’t see Mr Wylie as some knight in shining armor for authors. He is simply trying to do the same thing as the publishers–get as much money for himself as possible. Only, in his case this means getting as much money for his authors as well, since he gets a cut of their royalties. While there are authors would appreciate this attempt to gain as much money as possible, it does put me off a bit. I am not of the opinion that getting as much money as possible from other people is in my own best interest, and I frankly find the opinion of monetary conquest expressed by Wiley in his Harvard Magazine profile to be off-putting. It demonstrates a mindset interested in amassing wealth, not being generous, or fair:

If, as he says, he assumes near-ownership of his authors’ personalities, that may help explain the ferocity Wylie brings to his defense of their literary assets, aggressively protecting the intellectual property of agency clients newly vulnerable in an online world. When the W.H. Auden estate signed on, the poet’s entire oeuvre was available free of charge on the Web, in defiance of copyright law; Wylie assigned five people to work round the clock to shut all the sites down. The lapsing of copyright isn’t necessarily an obstacle, either. Wylie is now working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, a team of scholars, Random House, Macmillan, and digital producers to create a First Folio edition of Shakespeare. “If you find a hole like this [there was no First Folio in print in English] in the market and make it your own and protect it with a combination of copyright and the trademark of the Royal Shakespeare Company—a definitive performing troupe—then to all intents and purposes, Shakespeare is who you are,” Wylie explains. “And you get paid 10 percent for every copy sold.

“If Lewis Carroll and his estate had properly protected his rights, then global vacationers would be headed to Wonderland instead of Disney World and they’d have a more meaningful vacation experience, because Lewis Carroll is more interesting than Walt Disney,” he adds. “And if you could capture the value of Shakespeare, monetize and preserve it, then Microsoft and Google would be subsidiaries of the Royal Shakespeare Company. That’s the way I want to organize the world.”

In the end, Mr. Wylie may rue the day he started this ball rolling. It is very true that he doesn’t need the publishing houses to release ebooks. He can do that all by himself. But, so can the authors. So if we are going to question why we need publishers for ebooks, how long is it going to take authors to start questioning why the need agents taking a percentage of their ebook royalty money? At the end of this battle, Mr. Wylie may find himself losing as much as the publishers.

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(1) NPR story on Wylie Agency ebook deal: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128789516
(2) LA Times blog article on Wylie-Amazon deal: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2010/07/random-house-wylie-amazon-ebooks.html
(3) Harvard Magazine profile of Andrew Wylie: http://harvardmagazine.com/2010/07/fifteen-percent-of-immortality?page=0,1#
(4) NYT article on publishing reaction to Wylie deal: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/23/business/media/23author.html
(5) Financial Times article on Wylie threat to expand digital publishing: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6d62b464-9b4f-11df-baaf-00144feab49a.html?referrer_id=yahoofinance&ft_ref=yahoo1&segid=03058

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