Thursday, July 22, 2010

Did Literary Agent, Andrew Wylie, Make a Deal with the Devil?

I doubt I'll be the first (or last) independent bookseller to comment on the New York Times Article that announced literary agent Andrew Wylie was launching his own publishing company, Odyssey Editions. Odyssey (not to be confused with the marvelous independent bookstore where I work) will produce e-book editions of some of the backlist titles by authors they represent. These authors include Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Philip Roth.

As I read through the piece, which revealed Wylie's frustration with the low royalty percentages the large publishers are offering authors these days, I found myself nodding along and saying, "Ok...sure, fair enough," UNTIL I came to the kicker. Wylie is selling these e-books exclusively to for the Kindle edition.

Hand, please meet forehead.

Are you kidding me?

My morning shower, which is usually peaceful, suddenly became fraught with hostility. "Really, Andrew Wylie, really?" I said as I rubbed my skin raw with the washcloth.

You see, it's not just the exclusivity part that bothers me. Generally speaking, at least in the book world, if a title is offered exclusively through an independent bookstore, a chain, or an online retailer, at least it's available to the general public. It may be less convenient or frustrating, but if a reader wants to obtain it, he or she can! That, despite my personal views on e-retailers and big discount stores, is the most important thing.

For example: as a bookseller, was I jealous that Dan Brown was only signing copies of The Lost Symbol for his hometown bookstore? Heck yes! Water Street Books must have made a killing, but at least readers who wanted a copy could obtain it. It also helped out a wonderful independent bookstore.

Also, self published authors often sell their books through only a select few bookstores. Again, not always convenient, but it's available to any reader that wants it.

What really gets my blood boiling here is that by Wylie choosing Amazon exclusively, he is excluding so many readers. Those who chose to buy the Sony E-Reader, or the Nook, or any other device can't obtain an e-version of any of his books without having to buy another over-priced gadget. One can argue that that reader could simply buy the print version (and I hope he would), but what if it's out-of-print? Are we headed toward a future where many backlist titles are only available as e-editions? I simply don't know.

This veers off the path a little bit, but I'm also curious to know how many of Wylie's clients are published by Macmillan. Macmillan had the guts to fight for their authors and demand that Amazon price e-books fairly. Amazon's juvenile response was to remove the buy buttons from all Macmillan titles.

So, I have to ask myself why Andrew Wylie, who I'm sure is a true lover of books and readers, would make such an unfair deal?

I know I probably haven't even begun to scratch the surface of what is sure a much more complex situation, so I welcome any comments, questions, or further discussion!

Emily Russo Murtagh


Chris said...

Hi Emily,

This is a very interesting situation. Jason Epstein predicted this turn of events (among others) in his landmark 2002 title BOOK BUSINESS: Publishing Past, Present, and Future from W.W. Norton. Except that Epstein believed enterprising agents would set up dedicated websites for selling their author's eBooks. Wylie must believe that Amazon's vast distribution network offers a better opportunity for sales than a dedicated website would.

Anyway, it's a pleasure meeting you. I'm a literary agent with a blog called The Writer's Advocate (

Hope to be in touch!

Henry Baum said...

You can make the argument though that Kindle books are available from any PC or smartphone. So while it's not convenient, these books are still accessible to anyone with a computer.

willard said...

People can read Kindle books on Kindles, PCs, Macs, iWhatevers, Blackberries, and Android devices.
So why did not Random House have these book in an E format already?

The Odyssey Bookshop said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments!

While I did know there was a Kindle application for some devices, I didn't realize that they had one for the PC. How much does the application cost? Does anyone know?

As for why Random House hasn't already published these backlist titles in the e-format already: I think they're just behind! Random House may be the single largest publisher in the U.S., but their staff (like everyone else in the book world) is understaffed, underpaid, and overworked. Andrew Wylie took advantage of that. I have no idea who owns the rights to these e-books, but I think an argument can be made either way.