Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Whose Right(s)?: Wylie Prods Publishers on Ebook Licensing

Buried in the front matter of my book "Content Nation" you will find the phrase "Copyright © 2009 John Blossom," indicating that I own the rights to the materials that John Wiley & Sons has published. Look at my contract with John Wiley, though, and those rights are about as useful as a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge sold by some back-street con man. Wiley has my materials sewn up pretty well on just about any technology that they can imagine coming forth, leaving me, and most other authors, with a pittance of the proceeds from these sales via royalty payments. It's a state of affairs that's been fairly status quo in the book publishing industry for several years - that is, until literary agent Andrew Wylie decided to rock the boat recently with a stab at liberating its authors to get a fresh deal for their ebook rights.

As one of the most prominent and long-established literary agencies, Wylie has a large stable of popular authors whose contracts with major publishing houses precede by many years the dawn of ebook publishing. Looking at the legal limitations in these pre-ebook contracts and at the opportunities to be had for expanding its take from ebook sales, Wylie decided to test the legal and commercial waters and to start up their own ebook publishing service via Amazon's Kindle ebook service. Wylie's new Odyssey Editions already has a page set up on Amazon for its test case authors, with classics in from authors such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer never before available in ebook format already available for purchase at typical Kindle prices. Interestingly, these Odyssey Editions ebook titles are not yet showing up in search results for these titles on Amazon, although in some poking around I found that the Amazon's listing for the print edition of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (published by Doubleday's Vintage division) links to the Kindle edition of the same title from Odyssey Editions.

This obviously tight collaboration between Amazon and Wylie is easy to understand when you look at the pricing for these particular editions. You can buy the paperbook version of Portnoy's Complaint from Amazon for $10.20 plus shipping, or the ebook edition with instant free delivery for $9.99. With miniscule costs for "stocking" this title for readers buying Kindle editions and no middle-man profits to give to Doubleday, there's a much fatter pie to slice up between Amazon, book agents and authors for ebooks. The buzz is that authors and their estates are getting a much nicer take via the Wylie deal, though there's no indication as of yet that Amazon has eased their typical 70 percent share of Kindle revenues. Certainly nobody's thinking about the betterment of humankind in these machinations in any great way. You can blame authors holding out for more royalties for ebooks as much as publishing houses reluctant to offer them for the delay in getting some of these vintage titles in electronic format.

While this is a highly provocative move that's raised quite a bit of attention in publishing circles - The New York Times phrased it "Stirs a Fuss" - Wylie has been careful so far in its statements to indicate that the door is open to negotiating a settlement with print publishing houses. My own sense is that a settlement will be likely, but not until print publishers have exhausted a few more rounds of spin and legal briefs to try to regain some leverage in such negotiations. The strong backing of Amazon in this turf battle complicates the issue of settlement even further, as Amazon has made few friends recently in publishing circles with its increasing dominance of ebook sales. Ultimately this is more of an Amazon fight using Wylie authors as a prominent test case than it is a rogue literary agent charging bravely into the front lines of a fight for authors.

With all that said, though, this is a battle that's long overdue. The idea of an author being offered fifteen to twenty-five percent of revenues as royalty payments from publishers for ebooks is not realistic. This traditional formula, based on print editions, does not reflect the way that the risks of publishing are managed in an electronic era. When publishers had to stock titles in warehouses and manage marketing, shelving and returns from retail outlets, the bulk of the risk was on publishers to maintain a title's marketability for an author. In the era of ebooks, publishers take on a relatively small amount of risk by making materials available in electronic form. More to the point, most major publishers have done virtually nothing to develop and promote the new electronic channels on which much of their future revenues depend. There is no Wiley Kindle or Macmillan Nook, no global network that reaches billions of people that book publishers helped to sponsor to distribute their wares. Book publishers are swooping in for sloppy seconds by claiming publishing rights via technologies that are hand-me-downs for them in virtually every sense.

This road to easy profits is truly foreign to the reasons for which modern copyright was spawned in the first place. Copyright enabled eighteenth-century print publishers, the high-tech growth industry of its era, to take major risks that enabled a wide array of authors to reach mass audiences for the first time in history. Outside of specialties like textbooks and scientific publishing, today's book publishers have risked virtually nothing in electronic publishing for their titles compared to the likes of Amazon, Google, and the dozens of print-on-demand and smaller ebook imprints that are transforming book publishing via online technologies. They are truly the last belles to come to the ball of electronic publishing, reluctantly at that. The rewards in business should go to the risk-takers, not those who want to sit on old claims with old technologies when those resources can be monetized far more effectively via aggressive players with new technologies.

With the explosion of book titles and other electronic materials now available to readers online for little or nothing, the greatest risk-takers of all in publishing these days are the authors themselves. Authors must struggle to get heard above the noise of online content already surrounding their topic areas. The mass-marketing engines that major publishers have set up will continue to work for a handful of prominent authors and popular niche and genre titles, but in general the "hits" of literature will be fewer and further between and packaged increasingly for least-common-denominator audiences choosing between a popular book or a DVD at their local supermarket. For the legion of middle-market authors trying to build their own niche markets, they'll be better off with electronic distribution systems that allow them to take a larger share of the profits from electronic services that make it easier for people with highly specialized tastes to find and appreciate their titles via searches and social media communities.

Thinking of my own book, John Wiley's approach to managing distribution meant that my book, a far-ranging analysis of social media's impact on business, marketing and society, was being shelved along with computer programming manuals. In the search engines of Amazon and Google, it finds virtual shelving in the interests of any number of categories that Wiley would never think of marketing into in a thousand years. Major publishers simply cannot define and react to the highly tailored niches that authors can find and service rapidly via electronic publishing. It will be better for most authors to take the fifty percent of an electronic market and run - knowing that their share of profits will be as secure as their ability to stay relevant in a given set of search results. Yes, you won't be on Oprah as often, but Oprah's retiring soon - and, along with her, the dream of mass market glory for many authors. Best to put those dreams aside and play the market from the bottom up. If you're truly a great author you'll be found soon enough - and in the meantime you'll have your most important rights already locked up.

I suspect that the next chapter in this story will not be written by Wylie or Amazon but by Google when it announces its Editions ebook sales initiative later this summer. While titles from major publishers will get the lion's share of media attention at its launch, my guess is that Google will be well-tuned to the needs of the kind of middle-market authors that are largely neglected by by major publishing houses. Amazon's move with Wylie affects a relative handful of authors compared to those who may be willing to consider building their career using an inherently cross-platform publishing solution more attuned with where technologies are headed for ebook reading. Why get locked into either reader suppliers or publishing houses when search engines and social media channels can carry your titles to the niche audiences that you care about most on the platforms that they like the most? Consider Wylie's little fuss-stirring just the opening skirmish in a much broader battle for book-writing talent that has the search engine prowess of Google written all over it.
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