Thursday, July 22, 2010

O Dear: Odyssey Editions

In an interesting move, Andrew Wylie has made a deal with the d... uh, Amazon to exclusively publish 20 of his titles as part of a new e-venture dubbed Odyssey Editions. Needless to say, the publishing world will not be pleased.

There's probably very little love lost on Andrew Wylie in the industry as it is. The man's a genius and tremendously well-respected, but he's unafraid to play hardball and his brashness is legendary (he apparently would have graduated summa cum laude from Harvard had he not belittled his own advisor in his thesis). Insiders are predisposed to regard Wylie's decisions warily (or sometimes with a mix of paranoia and disdain), so I imagine there's going to be quite a buzz over "the Amazon Affair" over the next few days and weeks.

That said: I wholeheartedly applaud the creation of an electronically native imprint, and I do think it's the way of the future. What concerns me (and probably everyone else besides Amazon), however, is the exclusive deal that 1.) renders the title only available for sale through Amazon, and 2.) circumvents the publishing house entirely.

While proprietary editions of titles have been around for decades, it's another thing entirely to sell a title exclusively to one vendor (especially a vendor well-known for its severe and relentless downward pressure on book pricing) without even offering it elsewhere. It's decidedly Wal*Mart-esque and I don't think it bodes well for the market, regardless of how many BlackBerry or iPad or Android devices are bought and used to consume Kindle material.

Is this the way of the future? Potentially. I do think publishing houses are going to get a lot smaller and may, in fact, merge with agencies into a Wylie-type model (acquisition, editing, art, and formatting being done by one agency/house, with a small marketing, publicity, and sales staff to handle sales to vendors). But as long as physical books are still being produced, current printing, warehousing, and shipping infrastructures used and maintained by publishing houses will ensure the houses' continued existence.

Now, does my job depend on my not understanding Wylie's cut-out-the-middle-man tactics? In a sense, yes. Am I an idiot? No. Sure, there are some people in this industry so entrenched in the way things are that they'll end up losing sales and going out of business as the industry moves on without them. But those of us that embrace digital sales and are good at projecting and securing them will have a place in the industry five, ten, or even twenty years from now. And so, dear authors, will you.

15 comments:

  1. I have sat through countless meetings where higher-ups say they don't want to get into the sales business, that they need the market to get traffic from books not of their own imprints.

    I find this incredibly short sited. The new business model is to make money from other people's work. An ebook aggregator that gets pennies of a sale rather than dollars would allow publishers to sell their own content while maximizing the revenue from the sale. Instead, publishers are getting lead by the nose by Amazon and Apple and I have to wonder if they see where they're going.

    Normally I extol the wonders of the digital revolution, but some days I'm just sick and tired of this weird hands-off approach. Roll your sleeves up and get in there! If the public isn't willing to pay $17.50 for an ebook (which they're not), then you need to make more off of the lower price.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I don't think this is the future; it sounds like a way to capitalize on a favorable situation created by the terms of of older agreements that did not anticipate the rise of e-books.

    As I understand it, publishers hold the print rights to these books, but the contracts specify the format (paperback?), so the e-rights are in possession of the authors or literary estates.

    Economically, all authors would prefer to sell print rights to a publisher while retaining e-rights. Authors need publishers to get shelved in bookstores, but anyone can e-distribute on Amazon.

    Of course, publishers won't want and will not agree to acquire print rights to books when the author will be self-publishing a competing e-version that cuts into sales and leeches the benefit of the publisher's marketing efforts. Going forward, I doubt there will be many deals for print formats that leave e-rights in the hands of authors.

    On the other hand, if a future comes in which print sales and bookstore distribution are less important, and e-rights are the big piece of the rights pie, Wylie's move suggests that a new model may emerge, with agencies becoming boutique e-publishers.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Change is good. Makes for better business. (Makes a better writer.) I doubt the likes of Mr. Wylie and Amazon will be the entire future, just the extreme. Thus spoke naive writer-guy.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Sounds like Amazon paid a high premium for the cachet of getting these writers. The writers benefit in the short term (at least I hope the money eventually flows to them), and they won't necessarily be hurt too bad by being relegated solely to the Kindle. The agreement is only for two years, after all.

    ReplyDelete
  5. @Dan: The risk of pursuing that model on an industry-wide scale is that you could end up with two different books. The publisher invests the costs of copyediting, proofreading, and cover design. Why should they relinquish any of that work back to the author if the author is not using them for e-rights as well? Then you have an ebook with a different cover (causing confusion in the marketplace) and--depending on the extent of the editing--different books, possibly extensively so.

    Who has ownership of that final iteration is assumed to be the author only because it's never been a revenue generator before (or a loss creator for the publisher, more specifically). Start taking money out of their pockets, and say hello to the legal department (or worse, have your books released unedited *shudder*).

    ReplyDelete
  6. Strange. I mentioned my worries about one company potentially controlling what people read on my blog today.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Joseph,

    When authors sell foreign rights to a book that is in-print in the home market, don't they sell the edited book to the foreign publisher?

    Similarly, when a print deal expires and an author makes a subsequent publication deal with another publisher, don't they contract for the final, published text?

    ReplyDelete
  8. @Dan: Foreign rights don't compete against the publisher, a facet spelled out in the contract. Likewise, an expired print deal does not compete against the publisher. Publishing an ebook separately, even if you still hold the rights, competes against the publisher. Why should they play nice with you?

    Now frankly, I think that the copyedited content is still mine. I also think I don't have as many lawyers as publishers do. If the publisher offered me a fair deal on e-rights, I would go through them rather than directly to Amazon because I'm trying to build a long-term relationship and one does not do that by giving business partners the finger.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Some authors are taking the same move. Bob Mayer started his own publishing company to handle is own backlist. Now he's doing backlists for other authors and targets military, WWII, etc books. He's even talked of venturing into publishing books for the first time.

    Anyway, publishing is now a wrestling match on David and Goliath lines. The biggest guy may not win.
    best,
    The Editor Devil

    ReplyDelete
  10. By the way, I'm an advocate for seperating e-rights, audio, digital, video and film rights from print rights when contracting with a publisher. They want it all for nothing now. Unless they are willing to pay extra to own them, and they have a plan of action to act upon these rights to create real revenue that they will really share, then it's just a land grab.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I don't believe that claim about him almost graduating summa cum laude. I mean, what kind of professor would admit to that?

    ReplyDelete
  12. I was apparently off a little bit yesterday, according to the explanation by Jason Pinter at HuffingtonPost today. Apparently, the e-rights do not clearly belong to these authors; the terms of the original contracts are disputed. The publishers claim the e-rights go with the print rights. Wylie and the authors/estates argue that the old contracts do not convey digital rights with print rights.

    These contracts were negotiated at a time when digital rights were not significant and were not specifically discussed in the contract language. There is now a disagreement between Wylie and the publishers as to what the contracts mean, and there's a lot of money at stake. If Wylie wins a lawsuit on this matter, publishers could lose e-rights to much of their lucrative backlists.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Good article.
    Selling one's own ebooks through Amazon is not that simple: To date, Amazon only pays royalties on Kindle ebooks in US dollars. I don't have a US bank account, and to cash a US dollar cheque can cost about €20!

    ReplyDelete
  14. This is the best run-down of the situation I've come across, yet. Well done, and thank you!

    ReplyDelete