Most summers, the biggest late-week concern among publishing honchos is Long Island Expressway traffic to the Hamptons. This week has proven different. Debate is raging about how vulnerable major publishing houses suddenly are after book agent Andrew Wylie formed an electronic publishing imprint for his authors and made an exclusive deal with Amazon. This means that instead of leaving it to a publisher and taking a low split, Wylie gave Amazon sole e-book rights to titles like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, John Updike’s Rabbit Run series, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. You can read all of them only on the Kindle for $9.99 each, under Wylie’s own Odyssey Editions imprint.
Random House responded with sheer thuggery, blacklisting Wylie in a clear attempt to scare other authors and their reps from trying the same thing. Other publishers also expressed outrage in different ways, like Macmillan CEO John Sargent, who railed about how Wylie’s exclusive deals excluded other e-devices like the Sony Reader (like Macmillan really cares about anything other than its own fortunes). What neither of these houses addressed is the $64,000 question: do they control e-book rights in contracts signed before anyone imagined that e-books might surpass print titles? Many feel the answer is no.
Random House, unable so far to prove different, is using intimidation as a fallback ploy. It’s scary, given the sheer volume of books it publishes, but probably not effective in the long term. The publisher tried in 2001 to nip this whole thing in the bud, suing for summary judgment to stop an e-book venture called Rosetta Books. Random House lost. More recently, Bertelsmann Publishing chairman Markus Dohle sent a warning shot to agents, telling them the publisher was determined to protect its e-book rights, but once again, not mentioning whether it actually controlled them.
“They’ve not said we have the e-rights to the books you’ve written,” said one well connected dealmaker. “They say, we have publishing rights to these books, it costs us a fortune to run this place, and e-books are a huge source of revenue. If we can’t have it all, we’re not working with you.” (more…)