Perils in publishing
On August 25, 2010 | 0 Comments

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In July, Andrew Wylie, a top literary agent, caused quite some consternation in publishing circles when he announced that his new electronic book publishing venture, Odyssey Editions, via an exclusive arrangement with Amazon, was going to put out e-books of older works from authors he represents. Trouble is, the p-book (“paper-book,” old school) rights of those same works are owned by other [“conventional”] publishing houses. A for-instance scenario: Wylie represents author Ralph Ellison. Ellison’s p-books are published by Random House (RH). (Full disclosure: RH is my publishing house.) Wylie announces, “I’m going to e-publish Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man through Amazon on their Kindle Reader.” RH is not happy about this, the sentiment being, “How you can you publish Ellison’s book electronically when we have the publishing rights?” Wylie responds, in effect, “When you contracted Ellison, it was long before the electronic era. So you don’t own the e-publishing rights.”

RH’s response to Wylie was terse, and said in part that his move “establishes this Agency as our direct competitor.” They told him that henceforth he might as well forget about getting any of his clients published with RH. There followed a couple weeks of furious Internet debate. The questions included, who really does own the electronic publishing rights for old books, which are called back titles? These are often a good source of steady income for publishing houses. Some people thought Wylie was a little crazy, while others applauded him.

There are opinions on both sides, but the bottom line is that e-books (Kindle and the like) have thrown a monkey wrench into the works of traditional publishing. Amazon is claiming, for instance, that it now sells more e-books than its hardcover titles. That makes it tough for publishing houses. The debate also spotlighted the fact that some authors (and their agents) feel they should get a higher percentage of e-book sales.

On Tuesday, August 24, Wylie and RH reached a truce and issued a statement that said in part, “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.”

Although that tussle has died down for now, obviously it’s not the end of the story. The future of the battle between e-books and p-books is murky, but although I like technology as much as the next guy, I feel we should not let the joy of reading on paper be completely replaced by the aloof medium of the electronic page. Secondly, let’s not forget the indie bookstores, whose owners really know and love books. If you love mysteries like WIFE OF THE GODS and the upcoming CHILDREN OF THE STREET, please consider diving into your cozy neighborhood mystery bookshop instead of downloading the titles to an e-reader. The smell of new books, the tantalizing stand in the front of the store with its colorful array of books, why, there’s nothing like it. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t say the e-book is the great evil, I say let the old and new mediums coexist. We like new buildings, but we don’t want to knock down the elegant old ones and replace them with new.