Wylie riles

Wylie riles

As I reported in an earlier post, Amazon announced yesterday that the Wylie Agency had exclusively placed e-book edition of some very high profile backlist books (see previous post for list) in the Kindle store.

This is a very big deal.  I can see some concerns that people would express.

One obvious one: do we want the great works of literature controlled by one company?

Well, although the answer is no, I don’t see a big loss for readers in this deal.

First, releasing a book in the Kindle format is about as universal as you can get.  It doesn’t really cut anybody out of being able to get the book as an e-book.  Kindle books can be read on:

  • Kindles
  • PCs
  • Macs
  • iPads
  • iPhones
  • iPod touches
  • Blackberrys
  • Android devices

“But wait,” you say, “I can’t buy that book for my NOOK.”

True…but how many people have a NOOK and don’t have a PC or a Mac?  It’s not convenient, perhaps, and it isn’t your device of choice, but it doesn’t deny you access to the book.

“But there won’t be any competition!  Amazon will control the price!”

Yes…hypothetically, that’s a bad thing, but in practicality, I think this may mean that prices for the books are cheaper than they might be otherwise.  I do have some weasel words in there on purpose.  :)

Look at my recent post on bestsellers.  On the New York Times bestseller list for hardback fiction, the Agency Model books are all priced higher than the non-Agency Model books. 

“But there is no competition!”

True…but that’s the case for books under the Agency Model as well.  When a book is sold under the Agency Model, all former retailers become “sales agents” and have to sell the book for the same price.

I would prefer that there was competition…but honestly, if there is going to be one price-setter, I’d rather it was Amazon.

That’s just my opinion, though.

There was competition to get these e-book rights, presumably.  I’ve been suggesting to the tradpubs (traditional publishers) that they make sure they buy up those rights before somebody else did.  Whoops, too late!  It isn’t just Wiley, other groups (like Open Road Media) are doing the same thing.

I want to get to one more point before I look at some of the reactions to the deal.

There will be people who think $9.99 is too much for “older books” (see this earlier post).  I think one thing that drives that is thinking of paperbacks as only costing a few dollars.

The missed point here is that these books are often not available as new mass market paperbacks directly from Amazon.

Since many of these books may be from companies that block text-to-speech on their e-books (and I don’t link to books from those companies, even paperbooks), I’m going to do this without titles (as I did for the bestsellers for the same reason):

Here are five I sort of picked capriciously (not truly at random, of course):

Paper List AZ Price
 $   14.95  $   10.17
 $   15.99  $   10.87
 $   16.00  $   10.88
 $   15.00  $   10.20
 $   16.00  $   10.88

 All of these are $9.99 in Kindle editions. 

So, you can’t compare the $9.99 to the $2.95 you paid for a mass market paperback in the 1970s.  You can probably find used copies cheaper, certainly, but if you are buying them new, these e-book prices are cheaper than the cheapest new price available directly from Amazon.

Now, as to what happened:

Andrew Wylie is a literary agent.  Typically, that would mean that he would represent authors or the author’s estates in selling the rights to publishers.  It’s a big agency, with big clients. 

Wylie has been saying he is unhappy with the terms being offered for e-books by the tradpubs. 

So, he short-circuited all that.  He put some of his really significant titles into the Kindle store exclusively…cutting out the publishers entirely.

Presumably, he got a good deal for the authors and the estates. 

Naturally, at least some of the publishers are riled up over it…like they were over text-to-speech.

While perhaps “Touché” or “Well-played” might have been the genteel response, that’, um, not how this sport is played.

Random House started out by saying that Wiley cheated.  RH has been asserting that the contracts they have for paperbooks cover e-books as well.  They’ve sent out letters, been to court…but I think it’s safe to say that many people don’t accept the notion (and they did lose to RosettaBooks).

On the one hand, I think it’s nice that they want to argue that e-books and paperbooks are the same thing…kind of evens the field.  However, when you buy rights, you buy them for specific formats.  Buying the paperbook rights doesn’t give you the audiobook rights or the movie adaptation rights.  You pay for those separately. 

Is an e-book as different from a paperbook as an audiobook?  I’d say no.  Is it different enough to justify another contract?  So far, the answer has generally been yes.  It needs to be “adapted” to that medium, it’s consumed somewhat differently, and it is arguably sold to somewhat different market (but that’s just my guess). 

Here’s an AP article that talks about Random House’s statement:

AP article

Random House isn’t playing: here’s a short excerpt:

“…Random House on a worldwide basis will not be entering into any new English-language business agreements with the Wylie Agency until this situation is resolved.”

For background, take a look at this earlier article about Random House versus RosettaBooks:

AP article

John Sargent, Macmillan CEO, took the Amazon/Macmillan kerfuffle (which resulted in Amazon pulling books Macmillan books from the store for a while) public earlier this year, which I thought was a bit…unprofessional.

He’s also posted an opinion about the Wiley deal:

Macmillan blog post

It has some extraordinary statements in it…I do recommend that you read it.

Here’s one of the things I found oddest:

“I’ll be knocking on his door shortly, asking him for dues to the AAP.”

The AAP is the Association of American Publishers.

Really?  Membership isn’t voluntary?  Or is the suggestion that Wiley owes the AAP something for making this deal possible?  Sargent is the Treasurer, I believe, so if dues were due ;) , he might be the one to collect.

It just sounds a bit like assimilating them into the collective, if you know what I mean.  ;)   I’m sure there are thousands of micropublishers using Amazon’s Digital Text Platform to sell books through the Kindle store: is John Sargent knocking on their doors, too?

Macmillan is doing some good things, and I am a customer of theirs.  They are one of only two of the Big Six US trade publishers that doesn’t block text-to-speech access, and my hat is off to them for that. 

I just don’t buy that making books available through a single retailer on a wide variety of devices is more “damaging to the whole book community” than the Agency Model that Macmillan (and four others of the Big Six) use, and that eliminates competition in prices.  Changing retailers into “sales agents” seem to me to be a much more radical change than “disintermediating” publishers (although I do give Sargent props for using that word).  Disclosure: I’m a former bookstore manager, so I may be biased in favor of the need for retailers.  Of course, I’m a micropublisher, too.

You are going to hear a lot more about this in the news.  This deal is done, though…this is yelling at the barn door after the horse is loose.  ;)

The Bookseller on the deal

FUTUReBOOK on the reaction (from Catherine Neilan)

What do you think?  Is this deal terrible for readers?  Did Wiley doom itself in future deals with the publishers?  Are the publishers just complaining about sour grapes?  Feel free to let me know.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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4 Responses to “Wylie riles”

  1. Edward Boyhan Says:

    I was glad to see this development — as it represents an early step towards new business models for the publishing industry.

    I found Sargent’s comments to be strangely clueless. If the big six don’t start showing a little more flexibility, I fear they are headed for the dustheap. With agents and retailers (like Amazon) acting as publishers, the competitive landscape changes. It is premature to worry, but if Amazon becomes the dominant player, vertically integrated across the whole publishing industry, what happens then?

    Another example of cluelessness: a few days ago the president of Columbia University was making the case (in an oped piece in the wsj) for government financial support for traditional media companies such as the nyt, broadcast networks, et al because they can’t compete in a digital world.

    >>>>”On the one hand, I think it’s nice that they want to argue that e-books and paperbooks are the same thing”

    This is an argument I almost hope they’d win because then the rationale for agency pricing for ebooks and a wholesaler model for other formats falls apart.

    Are we selling a thing when we buy a book, or are we buying the “right to read”? The courts in the past (with CD ripping, over the air tv copying, etc) have tended to side with the consumer; yet the DMCA tilts very much toward rights holders at the expense of all other stakeholders. It is turning out I think (as your following article about copyright in the UK highlights) that the DMCA is neither very good at addressing the issues presented by a digital world, nor I fear is it going to have much millennial traction — we will, I fear, be having to revisit this before too long.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for a thoughtful comment!

      I do think a lot of this will settle down one way or another in the next few years. Part of it may be legal. Part of it will be market driven. Part of it will be cultural (both inside and outside the content companies).

      This is not a time for institutional inertia, and that concerns me. I think the US is already not in the forefront on copyright issues…that may turn out to be a much bigger issue than people realize, if we let other countries figure out what works best before we do.

  2. Peter Says:

    I believe you mean “Wylie” (the agency) instead of “Wiley” (the publishing house) here.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Peter!

      Absolutely right, silly mistake.

      I’ll fix it…thanks for the heads up! :)

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