Agents as Publishers?
It's a knife fight on the streets of New York City publishing!

The biggest NYC agent (Andrew "The Jackal" Wylie) and the biggest NYC publishing house (Germany's Bertelsmann Corporation, also known as "Random House") are no longer doing business together, at odds because of a fight about electronic rights that has once again put Amazon in a great position and has made everybody in publishing even more nervous about the future than they were already.

A conventional career in publishing these days now seems about as solvent and attractive as a career in space ice cream.

It is raining blood out there. And it feels like conventional publishing can only continue to tear itself apart, fueled by strangled horizons and small stakes dithering.

The real winners continue to be those cold, immense multinational corporations that don't care at all about "fiction," or "publishing," but have great, frosty ideas about how to distribute and monetize popular text files.


This particular fight started back in December when Random House proclaimed that they owned all the electronic rights to their entire backlist of books, and that writers published through Random House were therefore not allowed to broker any special side deals with any of these upstart electronic publishers like Amazon, Google, Apple, and Scribd.

Everyone rolled their eyes at Random House about this, and most people figured this would be a case by case thing. The contracts would be hauled out and rights would be determined according to specific case law and specific language.

It seemed obvious, however, that Random House was overreaching, and that that there was a big difference between print rights and electronic rights, and that unless electronic rights were specifically enumerated in a contract, then they ought to revert to the author. How can you broker away your rights for a technology that doesn't even exist yet?

It seemed like Random House was just trying to bully writers into accepting their spur-of-the-moment position platform.


No one was more pissed about Random House's autocratic Christmas posturing than Andrew Wylie. Known as "The Jackal" for poaching writers from other agencies, Wylie sees himself as the only true guardian of belles lettres, swooping in and taking control of powerful literary estates once it has been decided that these writers will "stand the test of time."

Wylie is kind of cool, kind of scary. Here are three fascinating quotes from him in a recent Harvard Review article:

WYLIE ON EBOOKS: "We spend 96 percent of our time talking about 4 percent of the business," he says (e-books' current share of publishing revenue). "That 4 percent will climb slowly, and I think it will grow first for frontlist. I suspect that the trashier the book, the more likely it is to be converted to an e-book. You don't have a desire to save James Patterson in your library. Those who want to keep a book for a long time will buy a physical book."

WYLIE ON NOT HAVING A SOUL: "I feel I do not have a personality of my own, so I am constantly in search of a personality," he says. "This might be why I am such a dedicated agent! A writer arrives with a fully formed personality and set of beliefs, powerfully expressed. I become so enraptured by their interests, knowledge, and means of expression that nothing can distract me. My ability to transmit the writer's qualities, to persuasively describe them with admiration, is strong because I have this sort of hollow core: I take on the author's identity. If I spend an hour with Susan Sontag and we walk out of the room together, you won't know which one is Susan!"

WYLIE ON PROTECTING COPYRIGHT: "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."

Anyway, Andrew Wylie said to Random House in December: "YOUR STANCE ON EBOOK RIGHTS IS AN OUTRAGE, AND YOU WILL RUE YOUR HUBRIS."

Random House replied: "BIG TALK, WYLIE: WHAT HAVE YOU GOT?"

And then last week, Wylie responded.


Last week, Wylie announced that he was creating an in-house electronic publishing company called Odyssey Editions. Odyssey Editions would initially publish about 20 backlist books -- mostly from recently dead authors like Ralph Ellison, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, and John Updike -- that would be available exclusively as electronic editions for the Amazon Kindle.

Wylie was making a bold statement. Publishing was now so easy that authors no longer needed publishing houses for these backlist titles, though Wylie was also making a statement about the future of the frontlist, telling the New York Times: "We're perfectly happy to entertain the idea of publishing authors we don't represent."

By brokering a direct deal with Amazon, Wylie gets more money for his authors and therefore more money for Wylie. He is cutting out the middleman -- publishers -- and getting already-successful books out there to circulate on the Magic Computer Tubes.

This is a cool concept, though totally fucking wacky: agents still find talent and books that they respect -- however, instead of having to turn around and sell these books to publishers, they simply help these "discovered writers" self-publish TO THE MAX and then take their 15% cut.

Random House, however, was furious about this. These trial books for Odyssey Editions are already successful and well-known (no risk), and they are successful and well-known because Random House MADE them successful and well-known. Random House did all the work of publicizing and building the reputation of these books, and now Wylie was going to capitalize on this without giving them a taste?

No sir. No ma'am.

So Random House, in a fit of damned pique and damned, damned spite, declared that it would no longer do business with Wylie nor buy new books from the agency. From the New York Times:

"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. 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."

Wylie, shocked and surprised by Random House's retaliation, declared that he would have to "think about it a little bit" before responding.


The consensus opinion among neutral observers is:

1. Wylie is right: publishers don't magically have ebook rights, and therefore must renegotiate for them. Random House is being a dick about this.

2. Wylie ought to be able to publish books if he wants to, though it is totally fucked-up to have your agent also be your publisher. This is like incest or something.

3. Wylie's exclusive deal with Amazon is bad for business all around and makes it look like he is getting played by Amazon. Also, it is curious that he has mainly sold the books of dead writers to Amazon, thereby earning a new reason for his nickname.

John Sargent, president of the OTHER giant German multinational corporation that publishes novels, Georg Von Holzbrinck (AKA "Macmillan"), had this to say about the Amazon deal:

"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."

"Independent booksellers across the country are making plans to launch their e-bookstores this Fall. Now they will not have these books available and Amazon will. These are the very folks who helped make many of these books bestsellers in the first place. And what of Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million, and others? As they promote the frontlist books for which Andrew is the agent, they are not going to be able to sell his publishing backlist in digital form... while their competitor can?"

"This move further empowers the dominant player in the market to the detriment of their competitors and creates an unbalanced retail marketplace. In short, the exclusive-to-Kindle aspect of this deal has no strategic value at all for authors and publishers. Given the advantage for Amazon, I'm sure the deal has been financially attractive for Andrew Wylie's new venture. In the long run, though, making literature exclusively available digitally to a single retailer will be damaging to the whole book community: authors, agents, publishers, and readers."

Sargent is worth listening to. Macmillan is still the only publisher that has stood up to Amazon and won, stonewalling Amazon earlier this year about their pricing practices.

And here's the Author's Guild's assessment of the situation, which mirrors that of Sargent:

"That the Wylie/Odyssey agreement is reportedly exclusive raises many questions and concerns. Authors should have access to all responsible vendors of e-books. Moreover, Amazon's power in the book publishing industry grows daily. 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."

So Wylie has a point...Random House has a point...but whatever happens, Amazon wins unless these new agent-run electronic publishing companies like Odyssey Editions branch out and do more robust deals, including all bookstores, formats, and possibilities in their distribution matrix.

Otherwise, Amazon is simply dividing and conquering. Business as usual.

NOTE: If you can get two people to stop doing business with each other while you can still do business with both of them, then you are in pretty good shape. (see "Advanced Tactics in Settlers of Catan," by Henry Kissinger)

Posted by miracle on Mon, 26 Jul 2010 22:53:32 -0500 -- permanent link

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