Mr. Wylie said his new company would focus on older titles whose digital rights are not owned by traditional publishers. The books will be available exclusively at Amazon’s Kindle store for two years.
In making the announcement Mr. Wylie opened a new front, and a possible negotiating tool, in a debate over e-book rights for what are called backlist titles. Many traditional publishers have said they own the electronic rights to those books, but some authors and their estates have disagreed, arguing that since the books were published before e-books existed, the digital rights were not explicitly sold to the publishers.
Take a look at the site here. I find this pretty profound myself, as the imprint includes many of my literary heroes long before I’d heard of self-publishing or ebooks. So it’s a melding of the past and future of publishing. Such as:
People are perhaps unwisely calling this a “self-publishing” enterprise, which it isn’t, technically. But it is evidence of the changing face of publication, and how widely-venerated authors are going to bypass traditional channels to more-progressive models. In terms of royalties and a fairer contract, this form of faux self-publishing may be seen as entirely necessary.
However, it’s not 100% a perfect set-up. Macmillan chief, John Sargent, makes a fair point about this arrangement. You could say this is the result of panic by a traditional publisher who may start losing major writers, but he’s got a point:
I am appalled, however, that Andrew has chosen to give his list exclusively to a single retailer. A basic tenet of publishing is that our function is to reach as many readers as we can. We disseminate our books and the ideas within them as broadly as possible. I understand why Amazon wants an exclusive deal with Andrew. They have asked us too for exclusive product, as has every major retailer we deal with. This is smart retailing, and a great deal for Amazon. 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. This deal advantages Amazon, which already has the dominant share in this market.
OK, that’s fine about this specific deal. But what if this enterprise wasn’t Amazon-specific? Then there’s no real argument against it. If the main thing that a traditional publisher offers is distribution (editors and designers can be hired), then there’s no reason to take an alternate path with the ebook market.
Today, publishers are stripping royalties from ebooks that are sold on places like Amazon at a discount. This is in part because the big six needs to extract every dollar it can out of a dwindling marketplace. When given a choice between more royalties and less – with the same exact distribution – it’s not hard to see what direction authors are going to take.
Publishers then will strong arm authors into taking an unattractive ebook percentage for the rights to publish a book in print – as is currently the process. But when ebooks are more ubiquitous and authors stand to make a lot of money selling ebooks direct, rather than having the publisher take a cut, mainstream authors will have an important decision to make. At that point, publishers, ironically, will be like a vanity imprint – taking too much of royalties for something an author can do him or herself.
This scenario will take a long time to play out, as ebooks are not going to be a majority share of the market for a while, but contract terms are likely going to change soon. Say Dan Brown said – if you don’t let me have my ebook rights, I won’t let you publish my book in print. Things will change, and fast.
Update: JFBookman retweeted this with the simple addition “Agents take control.” That’s the other amazing thing about this. An agent becomes a “self”-publisher because he sees the current system – his lifeblood – collapsing and sees an opening. All told, this is a major development – traditional publishers are becoming less necessary. Or, rather, today’s non-traditional publishing will eventually become the norm.