One of the most touted ideologies of printing digitally is that it will cut out the middle man and somehow bring the reader and writer closer together. However, none of the behind the scenes maneuvering by the big players–be it the publishers, the e-book reader manufacturers, booksellers– comes close to making this non-gated readers’ utopia a reality. Rather, what is consistently being seen is a realignment of power in different ways.
The latest strategy by Amazon to buy exclusive digital rights from Andrew Wylie, possibly the most hated individual on the literary scene, shows how far we are from achieving any supposed internet utopias. Rather, the strategy shows what the digital publishing scene is about: rights and the money associated with those rights.
First, I should explain who Andrew Wylie is. Without a doubt, Mr. Wylie is a man of impeccable literary tastes. He and his agency represent some of the best authors, both domestically and internationally. The list of authors and estates handled by Wylie includes Nabokov, Sebald, Morrison, Auden, Achebe, Naipaul, Spiegelman, Bolano, Endo, on and on. As much as the list is unequaled, so too is his reputation for rapacity and ferocious dealings. Some of the more high-strung editors have been known to fly into hysterics when recounting the latest encounter with “The Jackal” as Andrew Wylie has been called, none too fondly.
In this latest skirmish, Random House, the power house of the trade publishing world with a supposed 60% of the market share, suddenly found itself attacked in one of its weakest spots: digital rights. Many people will remember that Random House lost an important digital rights case almost a decade ago to Rosetta when Random tried to prevent Rosetta from publishing their authors digitally by arguing that their contracts implicitly covered digital rights under the wording of “book form”. The judge in that case disagreed, and this ruling has now made it clear that “book form” applies to physical print form, not the digital form. It should be noted that along with many publishers with important literary lists, Random House happens to deal quite frequently with Andrew Wylie.
While the details are not aired completely yet, it seems that Amazon has struck an exclusive deal with Andrew Wylie for the digital rights to 20 titles, including Lolita, Invisible Man, and Portnoy’s Complaint. In return, Random House released a statement that they will no longer be dealing with Andrew Wylie or his agency and threatened legal action against Amazon.
One of the facets of this story that is much to be wondered at is that Random House is continuing to stick to its old story from the Rosetta trial, that its existing contracts cover digital rights. To me, this signals that Random House, along with many publishers, persisted in believing that electronic books would never come to be. Certainly, some of the earliest attempts at e-books that date back to the late 1990s collapsed dismally. However, it would have behooved a company with such important holdings to protect its assets in a clear legal manner. Yet, I am fairly certain that what is true for Random House is true for many houses, that too many of them waited too long to recognize the potential reality of e-books and that a sly agent beat them.
For the last few years, even before the doom of print publishing was being announced, Wylie had been aggressively acquiring estates. It seems more than likely that he recognized that the dominant players of the game could change. After all, as much as Random House controls the market share of trade publishing, Amazon and other larger corporate players have much more money to shell out.
For Amazon, I don’t feel that this is necessarily about short-term goals. Rather, this is about making publishers play to its rules. Since the launch of the iPad, Amazon must have been feeling a bit down in the mouth about all the money invested in the Kindle which might wash out with the publishers deciding to control the game by playing Apple against Amazon. This new successful strategy now places the game in the hands of agents, yet another middle man.
And finally, I can’t help but make a rather snarky comment about Andrew Wiley’s reinvention of his job as “publisher,” even going so far as to name this supposed new venture. After all, isn’t he doing what he has always done: sell rights? Wiley is much too clever to do the foolish and Quixotic publishing thing: actually take a financial risk to back an author.