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Wylie and E-Books: What Am I Missing?

There’s hot publishing news this week, folks! I’ll talk about the details in the 8/3 Behind the Grammar podcast, but for now, here’s the rundown:

Big shot agent Andrew Wylie founded a publishing company, Odyssey, to make an exclusive two-year deal with Amazon for the e-book rights of ~20 of his big shot authors (or their estates). The deal includes books such as Lolita, The Invisible Man, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The kerfuffle-inducing approach is possible because the authors’ contracts predate e-books, so the authors own their e-book rights. The Authors Guild has an excellent analysis of what it means.

But I’m a bit confused. Perhaps my RSS feed is different from that of the people who run the Nabokov estate, for example, but for the last six months or so I’ve been bombarded with articles about how easy it is to self-publish books on Amazon.

Help me, blog commenters: Why don’t these authors, who own their e-book rights free and clear and have huge name and title recognition, just put their e-books on Amazon themselves and earn the 70%? Other than saving themselves the brief frustration of having to figure out something technical or the indelicacy of hiring someone to format the e-book for them, what do they get from having Wylie involved? It’s not as if they need the kind of advice and intercession an agent usually provides for authors who are building a career.

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5 Comments so far (Add 1 more)

  1. Considering that one of the major success stories of podcasting is a self-professed techtard, I’m not surprised that other authors have decided that it’s easier to get someone else to do the job for them.

    Maybe they’re also a stigma to being self-published, no matter how much name recognition one has.

    1. Asher on July 27th, 2010 at 12:16 PM
  2. My guess is that the despite the timely nature of their publishing contracts, there are exclusive agency agreements involved which stipulate Wylie’s participation regardless of who owns the electronic rights. The Authors’ Guild analysis indicates that Wylie’s monetary gain is not greater than a standard agency commission. So really, the key issue here is the precedent set by Wylie and the Amazon exclusivity to the titles he is brokering.

    Is Amazon paying above market fees for this dispensation? And if so, is this because of Wylie’s mediation on behalf of the Authors? In the aggregate, will the Authors reap more money as a result of the exclusive deal with Amazon, or has Wylie merely taken this opportunity to ensure his own piece of the pie, for now and with other Authors in the future?

    I suspect he was taking advantage of an opportunity presented by his agency before the Authors really saw what was happening. If Wylie hadn’t acted and the Authors did choose to digitally self-publish, regardless of their agency commitments (perhaps even blithely oblivious to them), would he be able to retroactively enforce his agency and reclaim his piece of the action?

    Certainly expensive legal entanglements would ensue and where would the courts stand on this issue? Quite possibly on the side of the authors and maybe Wylie is hedging his bets on that. Now that he has formally exercised his agency with the Amazon deal, a precedent has been set which will make it decidedly more difficult for next the pre-digital author to self-publish.

    What is most disappointing to me is that I own a Nook, so I guess I won’t be downloading Cheever or Updike anytime soon.

    2. Mary on July 27th, 2010 at 11:02 AM
  3. Without seeing the contract, I’d guess those authors are virtually indentured servants. If Wylie made himself controller of all the rights, then the authors themselves would have to sue (probably unsuccessfully) to escape. Wylie’s just another hog at the trough. Funny, the agent is supposed to work for the writer, not the other way around.

    Scott Nicholson
    Speed Dating with the Dead

    3. Scott Nicholson on July 27th, 2010 at 10:21 AM
  4. My take (and I don’t have much industry experience) is that he tells them, “Oh, it’s really complicated. You have to understand all these weird formats and get them just so. But sign here, and I’ll take care of all of it for you, and you’ll get in on the booming e-pub business!”

    This can only work if the author (or estate) doesn’t read the same blogs that you read, and is likely to believe that it really is complicated. There’s also something compelling (especially when dealing with seemingly complicated technology) in the line, “Just sign here, and you’ll start making new money” (not realizing that they make less money on books now that people buy ebooks).

    4. Michael Vezie on July 27th, 2010 at 9:51 AM
  5. This is a wild guess, but it could be the comfort zone of a business model with which they’re familiar (very nervous about writing that awkward-sounding phrase on Grammar Girl’s blog, correct me if I’m wrong).

    They’re used to working with a representative of some kind, used to trusting the guidance of agents/publishers etc. A DIY model might appear too risky or complex.

    5. Cathryn Grant on July 27th, 2010 at 9:34 AM