developments on the e-book front

There are two interrelated struggles going on over the potential revenues from e-book publishing.  One is among the sellers of dedicated e-readers, like the Kindle, the Nook or the Sony e-reader–each with one another, and all with AAPL, the creator of the iPad.  The last is a general internet content consumption device that hopes e-books will be one of many profitable sales opportunities for it.

The second is between authors and their publishers over who possesses the e-book rights to older “backlist” titles, whose contracts don’t spell out explicitly who owns them.  This “software” situation is at least as muddled as the “hardware” one.  Some literary agents and publishers have made their negotiations public; most have not.

The ones I know about on the publishing side seem to separate into two camps:  Random House and everyone else.  The issue is the royalty rate at which authors will be paid for backlist titles sold as e-books.  Authors’ agents point out that the incremental cost of selling an e-book is negligible, and that the e-book question is not addressed in the book contracts.  They conclude that their clients should get a higher percentage of such sales revenue than their contracts specify, since those implicitly factor in a physical publishing cost element.

Smaller publishers have been quietly striking deals with agents.  Random House has not.  It has taken the stance that it already owns the e-book rights to older titles because the contracts don’t explicitly exclude them.  It has also been conducting a gentle op-ed campaign to suggest that a book is really a collaboration between author and editor–and that the final product may be far different from the original manuscript acquired by the publisher.  I take it the suggestion here is that the book may not be the sole intellectual property of the author, to do with as he pleases, even if Random House were to be eventually found in court to have misinterpreted its older book contracts.

Last week, both battles reached a higher public profile when powerful literary agent Andrew Wylie, who represents a stable of hundreds of prominent authors, agreed to sell the exclusive e-book rights to twenty classic novels, including Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead,” Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and Salmon Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” to Amazon for the Kindle.  These are all titles under contract to Random House.

Random House has responded by stopping all new English-language book negotiations with Wylie.

This will be an interesting situation to watch.  The Wylie action only includes twenty books.  The Amazon deal is for a limited, two-year, time.  Presumably Wylie has chosen the titles with care–meaning authors/estates with the weakest ties to Random House.  So it is more a shot across the bow than a declaration of all-out war.  Random House’s action seems to me to be an overreaction.

Both moves may have unintended consequences.  I don’t see what Wylie has to lose, however, or what Random House has to gain, from their current positions.

Suppose sales of the twenty titles through Kindle are much better than anyone expects?  Then more authors will want to jump on the Kindle bandwagon and Random House will either have to backtrack or make a more draconian response.  If the latter, will it risk angering Wylie clients and losing them permanently to other booksellers .

Suppose sales are awful?  This is the “good” outcome for Random House–discovering that the e-book rights it is so ardently defending have no value.  I suspect this won’t be what happens, though.

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