July 27, 2010

Inside Wylie World, day two


Andrew Wylie stands up from his big, empty desk

Andrew Wylie stands up from his big, empty desk

Fall-out from the announcement of the exclusive deal between Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie‘s new Odyssey Editions and Amazon.com continued unabated Monday.

Things kicked off with a typically blithe, anti-publishing statement from the Authors Guild, saying “publishers have brought this on themselves” by paying “bargain-basement e-book royalty rates.” They say the rate quickly becoming standard — 25% of net — is “contrary to the long-standing practice of authors and publishers to, effectively, split evenly the net proceeds of book sales.” Of course, except perhaps — and I emphasize perhaps — for extremely rare deals for authors in the supreme sales ranks of, say, Stephen King, 50-50 deals are unprecedented in big publishing ….

So, ignorance or fibbing on the part of the Authors Guild leads it to cheer Wylie for declaring that, by Jove, 50% is what he’s going to pay … to authors whom are already being publicized and marketed by someone else. They don’t call him the Jackal — preying off the work of others — for nothing. As Boyd Tonkin noted in a perceptive commentary in The Independent,

In truth, the Odyssey Editions proposition looks full of holes: from legal doubts about whether he [Wylie] really has unassigned electronic rights, to the cost of designing, promoting and selling the e-books. With no help from publishers, Wylie has to create every aspect of his electronic imprint. That will wipe out much of the cost saving that should allow authors to receive a more ample royalty deal when a digital edition simply replicates a printed one.

On the other hand, Tonkin goes on to ask, “Does he care? I doubt it. He has scored already. The insulting offers for digital rights made to many authors by the trade-publishing giants have come into the spotlight. Wylie-Odysseus has called their bluff.” Except, er, Boyd, you just pointed out that the publisher’s rates make more sense than Wylie’s ….

Well, whatever, I guess — Mike Shatzkin, in an in-depth and often enlightening analysis at his Idea Logical blog, essentially agrees:

Even if the publishers pushing back manage to win this round with Wylie, and they well might, I don’t think the 25% royalty can hold for very long. As more and more of the business shifts to ebooks, companies without the legacy costs that big publishers have will find it easy to pay higher royalties than that and agents will keep doing the math about how many sales they can afford to lose and still end up ahead in dollars with a higher ebook royalty. As Amazon should have learned in their fight with Macmillan in January, it isn’t smart business to draw a line in the sand marking a position you ultimately can’t defend.

At least all concerned do agree on one thing — as the Authors Guild statement puts it: “any direct agreement between a literary agency and Amazon is troubling. Amazon has, time and again, wielded its clout in the industry ruthlessly, with little apparent regard for its relationships with authors or publishers or, for that matter, antitrust rules.”

Square Books' window display

Square Books' window display

A similar opinion of the deal with satanic Amazon prompted one of the more creative responses of the day: leading indie booksellers, Square Books of Oxford, Mississippi set up a display in its store window of all the books that would be unavailable as ebooks during the two year term of Wylie’s deal with Amazon. (See photo.) Included were works by Dave Eggers, Richard Flanagan, Mary Gaitskill, Ian Frazier, Philip Roth, Anne Lamott, Hendrik Hertzberg, Wells Tower, Richard Yates, W. H. Auden, I. F. Stone, and Saul Bellow. The company also posted a commentary labeled “Welcome to Wylie World” on its website, which read, in part:


Amazon is the company that, when Macmillan Publishing refused to agree to the company’s price demands, removed the “buy” button from all the company’s titles. Amazon is the company that, once threatened by the George Orwell estate for selling 1984 without their permission, electronically removed the text from its customers even as they read it.

Amazon manufactures a reading device, the “kindle,” which requires its owners to buy digital merchandise exclusively from Amazon – a bit like our selling you books that you could read only by using the bedside lamp you must also purchase from us. And this would be the only way you could read these books. Wylie’s authors’ electronic books will be available only via the kindle, only via Amazon, a soiling of first amendment principles that many of the agency’s authors, such as Arthur Miller and Salman Rushdie, have fought so hard to protect.

As you look at this display, we encourage you to think about the ramifications of this effort to vertically integrate the book industry and limit or exclude access to information and free expression ….

Meanwhile, by day’s end, the rumbling was becoming evident from across the pond: another big publisher, and another big retailer, had joined the protest. As a story in the Financial Times reports, HarperCollins UK CEO Vicotria Barnsley announced the company “will vigorously protect its rights and our authors’ interests by ensuring their work gets to the broadest possible audience.” A Bookseller report notes that she added, “The only winners in this are Amazon.”

Victoria Barnsley

Victoria Barnsley

The Bookseller also notes that David Kohn, the head of the UK’s biggest bookseller, Waterstone’s, said it was “very disappointing to see that some of our best writers’ work is to be only available in such a limited fashion. It does not help build the market, nor does it serve readers well.”

On that, everyone seems in agreement.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.