The Publishers Strike Back

The publisher backlash against the Wylie Agency creation of Odyssey Editions and the exclusive, two-year ebook deal with Amazon is neither surprising in its vehemence nor its lack of understanding of the ebook market. Random House immediately went for the throat. They suspended contract negotiations with the Wylie Agency and have told Amazon that they’re disputing the validity of the deal, since it involves titles “subject to active Random House publishing agreements.”

Mind you, every time publishers have made this claim in court to preserve rights that were not specified in a contract, they have lost.

John Sargent, the US head of Macmillan, posted to his blog a statement that, when read coldly, is so weak, so full of fear, and so full of misinformation, it’s achingly funny. He notes:

But it is an extraordinarily bad deal for writers, illustrators, publishers, other booksellers, and for anyone who believes that books should be as widely available as possible.

As I noted yesterday, this deal is anything but bad for writers. At the very least, it will encourage publishers to offer writers a larger royalty on ebooks. But more important than being a good deal for writers, its a great deal for consumers. Mr. Sargent has apparently missed the fact that if a device has a screen, there is a Kindle app that will run on it. This deal won’t make these books harder to find. Anyone who has a smart phone, iPod Touch, iPad, computer or Android powered device will have access to these books. And because early reports indicate the books will be priced at the $9.99 price point, readers will be saving a lot of money.

And Sargent goes furthers:

This move further empowers the dominant player in the market to the detriment of their competitors and creates an unbalanced retail marketplace.
In short, the exclusive-to-Kindle aspect of this deal has no strategic value at all for authors and publishers. Given the advantage for Amazon, I’m sure the deal has been financially attractive for Andrew Wylie’s new venture. In the long run, though, making literature exclusively available digitally to a single retailer will be damaging to the whole book community: authors, agents, publishers, and readers.

Again, he lumps authors with publishers, but this deal is all about the fact that authors and publishers are not in the same boat. Author and publisher interests have long since diverged in the digital market. How anyone can consider a deal that makes authors more money and gets it to them faster, while making their work available worldwide, is beyond comprehension.

He’s crying crocodile tears. If Macmillan came up with a technology that would allow them to dominate the market to the detriment to everyone else, would Mr. Sargent refuse to deploy it? Of course not. That’s capitalism. That’s what he’s required to do if he is going to be responsible to his stockholders. Here he’s just saying that Macmillan missed the boat, so he’ll just sit on the dock and weep.

I hope that works for him. Traditional publishing, it must be remembered, has had several bites at this digital apple. Apple’s Newton device, back in the late 1980s, was designed, in part, as an ebook reader. The Rocket e-book device came on shortly thereafter, and locked up publishing deals with most major publishers. At the same time, Palm’s devices had ebook reading software available. Publishing again flirted with digital marketplaces when Amazon rose up, launching their websites, trying to emulate what Amazon was doing without alienating their retailers. They took half-steps in both situations, and failed to progress. No surprise. Then they sat on the sidelines while the digital revolution savaged the record and video components of their entertainment conglomerates. They again hesitated to act, and now they are paying the price.

Here’s the wake-up call: If agents are going to become publishers and collude with retailers, why don’t the publishers go ahead and become ebook retailers and cut certain retailers off? Why don’t they beef up their ability to sell books electronically? And why don’t they actually use technology to sell books in whichever format they want.

Macmillan, for example, sells a lot of anthologies. I have stories in many of them. And yet, if you go to their website and do a search on my name, you’ll only find a couple of them. Why? Because whoever puts together the webpage doesn’t actually list—either in copy or metatags—all of the authors in the book. All they do is cut and past text from a print catalogue and don’t bother to expand “and others” into a complete list. By being lazy, they obviate one of the great benefits of the net: the ability of folks to use search functions to find things they want to buy.

As I’ve noted recently, I think traditional publishing has a month, perhaps two, to get its act together to salvage anything out of the ruins of their business. What they need to do, in short order, is this:

1) Immediately install a system for converting books into ebooks, for creating omnibus editions and for retailing same directly from their websites, capturing the majority of the profit from sales.

2) Offer authors a realistic split of money. Roll percentages back to the pre-2009 50% of electronic revenue.

3) Invest in POD technology and storefronts so publishers will have a presence after the collapse of the big-box stores.

I don’t expect that to happen. I do expect to see more author coalitions and agents following the Wylie lead. And while it will pain me to see big bookstores go away, and I’ll remember fondly the halcyon days of big publishing, I’ll console myself by counting my money and figuring out as many ways as possible to profit in the digital age.

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8 Responses to “The Publishers Strike Back”

  1. Mike - New Hampshire 23. Jul, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    I find it interesting that the e-book revolution has not just brought into question the relevance of the Big publishers but also the relevance of Agents. This move by Wylie Agency is to ensure that they remain relevant to their clients. Dean Wesley Smith’s blog has shown the many ways that Agents are becoming less valuable to Authors. Your blog and a number of internet successes have show how publishers are no longer required for success.

    It’s going to be very interesting over the next few years as multiple parties from different sides of the publishing industry compete to survive.

  2. Dear Michael,
    Jason Pinter at HuffPost ( to be of similar mind. I’m wondering if a couple of well-credentialed and web-savvy authors (and their friends) could put their heads together and come up with an improvement to the Wylie deal and noise it around. Then maybe readers and authors might have a new industry standard as leverage in what could be a very desperate battle for hearts and minds (& royalties) in the next 12 months or so. It would be as both you and Jason have indicated, the most important people (readers & writers) driving the agenda instead of those who have historically stuffed it up for the last several centuries.

    Ian Martin

  3. Ian,

    The only difficulty in getting authors together is that doing such a think is akin to herding wet cats. I’ve spent the last three years making it very apparent to authors that it is in their own financial best interest to get work up on the ‘Net. As with the general population, many of them dwell in fear, therefore are reluctant to change the least little thing. Many don’t want to be bothered with technology, which is why the Wylie deal appeals so much. Some are willing to even settle for the paltry amount that publishers will pay them to hold rights that the publishers do not have the time, interest or infrastructure to exploit.

    We can lead horses to water, but we can’t make them open internet stores and sell their backlist. Once they realize that because they are the talent that creates the content—therefore everyone else needs them, not the other way around—the will have power. For many, alas, that day is far off and will be slow to come.

  4. I think you’re especially right on your #2 suggestion. Since I can get 70% royalties on ebooks on my own, I’m having a hard time taking traditional publishing seriously right now. If it was 50% with trad pubs, then I’d have to whip out my query letter and tweak it some more, and prepare myself for the waiting game. But as things stand, putting it out there myself, much sooner, sounds much better.

  5. Dear Michael
    sorry to hear you’ve wasted that much time. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised but it’s still a bit depressing the see confirmed the “I just want to write/head in the sand” mentality. It wasn’t so long ago I was that way myself. Your Digital Careers Guide certainly kicked me out of that place.
    Many thanks,

  6. I don’t think of it so much as wasted time, as an investment in the future. But the return on that investment has been a tad on the slow side. Still, one writer at a time, we win. 🙂

    Thanks for the kind words on the Digital Career Guide.


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