Friday, July 23, 2010

Wylie Shakes Up the Big Six

In a room filled with agents and publishers, if you speak of "The Jackal," no one will have any doubt to whom you are referring: Andrew Wylie, founder and CEO of The Wylie Agency.

Rumor has it the nickname was first given to the well-known literary agent by the Brits after Wylie "stole" author Martin Amis from fellow agent Pat Kavanagh who had represented Amis for 23 years. Wylie promised Amis a large advance, and he paid off, snagging $750,000 upfront for Amis' novel The Information.

Wylie shook the publishing industry on Thursday when he announced the launch of Odyssey Editions. Through an exclusive two-year deal with Amazon, Wylie's new company will release e-book versions of twenty books from the backlists of authors his agency represents, including Amis, John Updike, and Salman Rushdie.

Publishers Marketplace reported on Thursday that Random House and Penguin appear to be the Big Six publishers that will be the most impacted by the new Odyssey venture because of their representation of the print versions of Odyssey's proposed e-books.

Reaction from the Big Six was swift. John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, published a post on his company's blog here on Thursday. Among his comments:
I am appalled ... that Andrew has chosen to give his list exclusively to a single retailer ... Independent booksellers across the country are making plans to launch their e-bookstores this Fall. Now they will not have these books available and Amazon will ... This move further empowers the dominant player in the market to the detriment of their competitors and creates an unbalanced retail marketplace.
The New York Times offered a statement from Random House:
"The Wylie Agency’s decision to sell e-books exclusively to Amazon for titles which are subject to active Random House agreements undermines our longstanding commitments to and investments in our authors, and it establishes this agency as our direct competitor ... Therefore, regrettably, Random House on a worldwide basis will not be entering into any new English-language business agreements with the Wylie Agency until this situation is resolved.”
Wylie's move should not have come as a surprise to anyone. During a recent interview given to Harvard Magazine here, Wylie talked about digital rights:
Wylie’s negotiations with publishers on the book industry’s version of the iPod, e-books, are currently on hold across the board. He’s dissatisfied with the terms publishers have been offering for e-book rights, which were not widely foreseen and are not allocated in most extant book contracts. In fact, Wylie threatens to monetize those unassigned rights by going outside the publishing business entirely: “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,, or Apple. It would be another business, set up on parallel tracks to the frontlist book business.”
The UK's Guardian speculated today that: "This may be nothing but an Armageddon-style negotiating ploy" on the part of Wylie to get better terms.

But I don't think that's the case. As an agent, Wylie has always appreciated the value of an author's backlist. I found an interview he did three years ago on December 14, 2007 for here in which he said:
I'm in love with Amazon, I have a puppy crush on Amazon. . . . The business model of the [bookstore] chains is that those books that sell in the highest volume get the lion's share of presentation. The business model of Amazon is that all books are presented in one copy. So in the latter universe, quality over time is valued far more highly than in the chain model. I fell in love with it early ... Because on a per-book investment for most of the bestseller list, Amazon invests less in a bestseller than the [bookstore] chains do, and it invests more on the backlist than the chains do."
The Business Insider said here on Friday:
The dispute is partly about who owns the rights to publish the e-book versions of older books, whose contracts were negotiated before e-books existed.
I disagree. I suspect Wylie has thought about this move for a long time. I have no doubt he selected those twenty books very carefully and that Random House (or another publisher) is going to find it hard to claim the e-book rights for those twenty. Other titles on Wylie's backlist maybe, but not those twenty. That's the real reason why Random House went straight to the nuclear option. They have no other card to play in this game.

Remember how Evan Schnittman argued on his blog that the book should not be broken down into its constituent parts? Go here to read Evan saying "that successful and coherent publishing is not the sum of individual publishing rights, but rather the gestalt work presented coherently to a global audience. Viewing the ebook out of the context of the rest of the work gets us nowhere."

I didn't disagree with Evan then, and I don't disagree with him now. And, while deconstruction is precisely what Wylie is doing, I also think he's carefully selected his targets: zoning in on that grey area that presently exists in contracts for an author's backlist.

We've talked before about the publishing industry's focus on best-selling authors. When you think about it, both the Big Six and the bookchains are mostly interested in the newest and shiniest books--the latest output for which publishers pay those enormous advances. Of course, the backlist produces a nice, steady income, but publishers have become addicted to the high they get from seeing their books on the New York Times' bestseller list.

Wylie is taking advantage of publishers' astigmatism. The Big Six were so focussed on that point in the future that they didn't worry enough about digital rights in contracts for the older backlist books of their authors' oeuvre.

He's also delivering the wake-up call to the Big Six I predicted this past Monday when I said:
I may be wrong about the players, but I'm not wrong about this prediction: Sometime soon AmazonEncore is going to snag a New York Times best-selling author. And then, as we say in Texas, "Katy, bar the door."
It's no wonder Random House has responded so violently.

Stay tuned ...

1 comment:

Mike Keyton said...

Hi Maya, I thought you might find this link interesting. You'll need to scroll across to near the end of the programme aprox 8.45 am.

I hope you can get it.