If you are contract, royalties, or publishing geek, today (yesterday?) was an exciting day. Sort of like the bully saying “I’m gonna beat you up” every day until the scrawny kid picks a fight. All concepts relative. As promised, agent Andrew Wylie did what he said he would:
“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.”
And, as predicted, there was sturm and drang. Random House huffed and puffed and said they wouldn’t contract books from Wylie authors. That’s a fine stance, and I think it will last until they decide there’s a book they want enough to change their collective corporate mind. There’s principle and there’s business. One makes more money than the other.
I don’t have cohesive thoughts on this, but that’s what bulleted lists are for, right?
Exclusivity: The Wylie deal (or Odyssey, as the publishing arm is called, deal) is apparently a two-year exclusive agreemen with Amazon/Kindle. I am not a fan of exclusive deals. I think it’s better to make your books available everywhere. My personal feelings aside, if you’re going exclusive, Kindle is the best possible platform. You can read the books you purchase on every possible device, from phones to desktops. Sure there are territorial issues, but y’all know I write long, so we’ll skip that.
I have three theories on why this is a Kindle-exclusive deal. The first, and most obvious, is that when Wylie started this process a year ago, the digital books landscape was very different. Kindle dominated. Even today, going with Kindle alone is not a bad bet for publishers. Second, it’s possible Amazon offered some fine incentives for an exclusive deal. These deals are not unheard of, and if you’re going for market share, what better way to reach customers than having something nobody else has?
The last theory is weird and squidgy, but I like it. If you, agent, are trying to convince authors/heirs that going digital is a genius idea, what seems safer than Amazon? Nothing. Recall, if you will, that many old school authors are digital skeptics, believers that books equal print. If you are going to be coaxed into the digital age, you want to go with a name brand.
Pirate Killer: It should not surprise anyone that the books on Odyssey’s list are also readily available on pirate sites. In fact, any book on any college syllabus is available. Unless you’re studying the really odd stuff, in which case, awesome! As of last night, these authors are being paid for their digital books. For the first time. That has to count for something. Every day’s delay is lost money.
For all the promises and assertions of major publishers, they have not been able to accomplish this simple feat: paying all of their authors for their digital works. The mind boggles. They are digital aeons behind on this process, and that’s just for the rights they own free and clear. Again, every day without a legitimate paid alternative is lost money.
Royalties: I know it’s crass to talk about money, but we are not talking about new authors realizing their artistic vision. We are talking about library titles that have (presumably) earned out advances and are making what I call bread-and-butter income for publishers. Yes, there are costs of creating a digital version, but offering a 25, 30% royalty is insulting.
I am going out on a limb and thinking — based on previous reports — there were negotiations between Wylie and other publishers, and the publishers didn’t offer what Wylie thought was reasonable in terms of money. I don’t know who was right or what the middle ground was (and I have my thoughts on agents also serving as publishers without requisite arms’ length negotiations), but the parties involved seem to believe the Odyssey deal is in their best interest. I hope they are sophisticated enough to weigh all pros and cons
- A Moment: I’ve suffered through a lot of crappy backlist conversions from major publishers. For better or worse, the Odyssey books are quality. They look good, the images are well done. These books are, so far, the quality ebooks we’ve been craving. So much so that I’m not going to debate price with myself.
Agents, More: I have spent my adulthood fighting on the side of The Man. I have worked to preserve, for lack of a better term, the business practices of the distributor/publisher/whatever. I am really good at justifying these practices, and, because I am a lousy liar, I know there is a good business justification for things that seem wrong to the peanut gallery.
Agents know what I know. The economics of a library title are far different than the economics of a new release. And they know that digital margins are far different than print margins. They are going to fight for the best interests of their clients (and not only because those best interests align). What is emerging, a tad more rapidly than I predicted, are robust, serious alternatives.
In this particular game, it’s up to the legacy publisher to prove its worth. I’m afraid that means money, since we’re mostly talking the kind of books that sell themselves. I say that not only for library, but also for current titles. Contracts must evolve and quickly. Too much competition is lurking for them to remain business as usual.
- Another Moment: I think I’ve mentioned a time or two that I hate most publisher websites. Too messy, too unfocused. The Odyssey website is pretty and clean. And their digital book covers are appropriately suited to the medium.
- What Is a Book?: I am less interested in the exclusivity question than I am in this. The rights question — can Wylie do this crazy thing? — depends on the contract between each author and each publisher. For the books in question in the Odyssey, the definition of book was pretty clear to both parties: hard/soft cover, paper with words printed on them. So much has changed since then. How will judges and juries view these old school definitions and the applications today’s marketplace?
Litigation Madness: Outside of RICO (thanks, Kirk, though we know it’s a mad stretch!), I don’t think there’s a way for a publisher to assert a class action suit against its stable of authors. Each agreement will have to be litigated separately. Taking name authors to court is dangerous for publishers — do you really want The Man versus poor author? Taking smaller authors to court has equal challenges.
Litigation keeps America working. I am proof of this, and I’m not a lawyer. Not that I have anything against lawyers. Some of best friends are lawyers. But litigation is expensive, and publishers would have to bank a good number of judgments before the other side cries uncle.
On the other hand, the threat of litigation will deter smaller authors from pursuing action. Litigation is expensive. How many authors will roll over because they cannot afford to defend their rights?
I know I have more, but, hey, that’s the start of a conversation, right? What are you thinking?