The Wylie thing

Comments on ebook world in general … was very interested to read a week ago about the Wylie agency’s plan to publish some of its authors (such as Phillip Roth and John Updike) in ebook format directly (and exclusively) with Amazon, slicing out the hardcover publishers altogether. (ebook rights being a gray area as most publishing contracts pre-date the notion of ebooks.)

Meanwhile, publishers such as Random House have “had a cow” and announced they will cease doing business with Wylie (see how long that lasts if they have the next hot property). The Guardian article cited above points to a big part of the problem: publishers have been extremely greedy in their offers to share ebook proceeds, which have essentially zero marginal cost to them.

But the real question is, what will the brave new world of ebook publishing really look like? We’re still quite a ways off (but recent price drops on Kindle seem to get us a lot closer) from the time when almost every potential book consumer has the ebook option, so “real” books will be necessary first to capture the total available market, and secondly — the whole business of book promotion is (currently anyway) geared around traditional books and traditional channels (ie bookstores), except for the odd ebook promotion.

(It will be a big turning point when the New York Times Review of Books reviews a book available only in ebook format).

Although I think Wylie is (possibly) making a good move for the established authors they represent in terms of maximizing ebook revenue … these are long established authors. Whether the Amazon editions have the Wylie or Random House or other imprint is irrelevant to their marketability: users will simply search for “Rabbit, Run” on Amazon and download it.

The exclusivity is very disturbing however, and one must conclude that, given that 70% royalties are available already through Amazon’s DTP program, this must be one sweetheart deal royalty wise; which makes one wonder for a moment, what is in it for Amazon, other than cachet? Probably, the opportunity to lock out other channels from name authors, thereby de-valuing the other platforms. Monopolistic? At some point Amazon’s sales figures will become very relevant, as their actions in “limiting supply” and “predatory pricing” seem to invite review.

Regardless of the fallout and possible clumsiness of the arrangement, one has to say “good on you” to Wylie for staking a claim as to the author’s claim to the better part of a more disintermediated ebook ecosystem.

What would perhaps be even more interesting is if Literary Agents were to begin publishing previously unpublished authors. Right now there is a multi step process involved in bringing a new author to print: first the work must find an agent who believes in it enough to invest their time and reputation in pedaling it to a publisher; then a publisher must select it, advance something towards future royalties, and invest not only in the print inventory but in the whole mechanism of promotion (to the extent this occurs). Wylie’s “publishing” venture does none of this. I think it is real challenge to imagine how this will all take place in a universe where the ebook becomes the primary edition.

Right now, anyone can publish themselves, with Amazon DTP or Smashwords. However, these channels are not so terribly removed from vanity publishing: there is no editorial filtering nor production standards (which at least the vanity press provides to some extent).

Well, piling on to the publishers as being rather obtuse about this: where they are shooting themselves in the foot is by becoming passive victims of Amazon and I suppose to a lesser extent B&N and Sony. What they seem to fail to grasp in the era of ebook disintermediation is that they should be slicing out the distribution channel, ie Amazon.

A look back at some magazine publishing history might offer a suggestion: many decades ago a group of magazine and book publishers (including Time-Life, McCalls, then independent Bantam Books, and Grosset & Dunlap) formed a magazine distribution company to get more control over magazine distribution and lower costs of distribution (never mind that it went bankrupt in 1989…).

Creating an ebook store is no more difficult than any other garden variety web content site, which are basically a dime a dozen. And ebook readers are trending commodity, although it is certainly true that maintaining a state of the art competitive hardware platform probably ain’t cheap. But in the end, these are details if there was a concerted investement attempt on the part of Random House, Viking Penguin, HarperCollins, etc. to established a publisher owned ebook marketplace.

Aside from all of the inertia, FUD, and cluelessness on the part of publishers, I think the big barrier is the current semi-closed model for DRM technology, which is in the grand scheme of things going to be a necessary evil for some time. What a “Select Ebooks” would need is an open hardware platform specification. (We may already be there with epub and Adobe’s Content Server, but I’d opt for something a little more open; the whole point is to get as many fingers out of the pie as possible.)

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