Thursday, August 26, 2010

Wylie vs Random: The Thrilla in Manila (Folders)

It's all too easy to complain about media coverage of the publishing business, but as my mother used to say, honestly.... It was surprising to see the wildly erratic spins that some outlets put on yesterday's news that Andrew Wylie had come to terms with Random House for the latter to publish e-books of several prominent backlist authors whose contracts predated the electronic era and made no provision for such editions. (Those contracts are typically tucked away in yellowing manila folders somewhere in the bowels of a publishing house. Consulting those documents, typed on old Royals and Underwoods, sometimes existing only as "carbons," feels like traveling back to the age of three-martini lunches.)  What made this newsworthy was that Wylie and had annouced with much fanfare that the agent was starting his own publishing house that would partner exclusively with Amazon to sell the work of some 20 authors.  Random, which has already asserted unilaterally that it alone may publish e-books of its backlist authors, regardless of contractual omissions, said it would boycott the Wylie agency over the issue. (Sarah Weinman gives a good summary of all this at Daily Finance.)

The press treated the original Odyssey announcement as a bombshell--the normally sober FT intoned, "many executives fear[ed] the showdown over e-book rights would lead to the death of the 500-year-old publishing business as it is known." Yikes! 

This was, ahem, an overstatement. The real issue regarding backlist e-book rights was not whether Random had a valid claim on them (they had some claim, but whether it would have prevailed in court was quite uncertain). It was simply (as I said at the time) that if Random did publish the e-books, they'd have to negotiate royalty rates, and the authors and agents involved would want higher royalties than the 25% of net that has been Random House's usual boilerplate. 

The matter has been resolved, apparently with Random agreeing to some kind of sliding royalty scale on e-books that goes as high as 40%, and Wylie conceding to Random control of e-editions for 13 of his 20 Odyssey authors.  This is a reasonable resolution that probably could have been arrived at with less heavy breathing all around. But press accounts of yesterday's agreement shot off in all directions. One headline said "Random House Wins Battle with Wylie," while the WSJ, apparently looking for its own angle, reported it as "Amazon Loses E-Book Deal."  Evidently "the death of the 500-year-old publishing business" has been averted.

However, whether you consider it a "loss" for Wylie or his clients depends on whether you view Odyssey editions as something he was really committed to, or a great negotiating tactic.  We may have a better sense of that when we see whether Wylie strikes deals with Penguin, Harcourt Houghton, and the other publishers of the remaining "Odyssey seven." 

It's a "win" for Random in that they are surely happy to keep the e-books of authors like Updike and Nabokov; but they are probably not thrilled to have their improved e-book royalties discussed in "the colyums." Especially if they have, as many houses do, "most favored nation" clauses in contracts with other authors. (As a precedent, it won't be cheered by other big publishers either.) 

As for Amazon, I'm sure they would have loved to have exclusive e-books (though just for two years) of Lolita or Invisible Man, so this is a setback for them. But they're still going to be able to sell all those e-books on any device that can access the Kindle store, so they can cry all the way to the bank.