As publishers and retailers wring their hands over agent Andrew Wylie's deal with Amazon to publish modern classics by authors including Philip Roth and John Updike, influential American writers' body the Author's Guild has entered the fray saying that publishers "have largely brought this on themselves".
Last Thursday's announcement that Wylie's Odyssey Editions would bypass publishers to sell the first-ever eBooks of modern classics, from Midnight's Children and London Fields to Lolita, exclusively via Amazon's Kindle store prompted immediate and aggressive reactions from publishers. Random House said it would not enter into any new English-language business agreements with the Wylie Agency.
With most of the titles being Random House titles, the publisher's response was swift to Wylie, saying that it would not do business with Wylie for English-language works "until this situation is resolved."
The Guild's statement warns against exclusivity contracts between any publisher or agency and retail outlet, feeling that this will flout anti-trust laws as well as condone business practices that could create more harm than good for consumers and authors.
"Regardless of the exclusivity issues, any direct agreement between a literary agency and Amazon is troubling. Amazon has, time and again, wielded its clout in the industry ruthlessly, with little apparent regard for its relationships with authors or publishers or, for that matter, antitrust rules. Any agency working directly with Amazon may find its behavior constrained in unpleasant and unpredictable ways. Agencies should proceed with extreme care."
The Guild also stated that, "To a large extent, publishers have brought this on themselves. This storm has long been gathering. Literary agencies have refused to sign e-rights deals for countless backlist books with traditional publishers, even though they and their clients, no doubt, see real benefits in having a single publisher handle the print and electronic rights to a book. Knowledgeable authors and agents, however, are well aware that e-book royalty rates of 25% of net proceeds are exceedingly low and contrary to the long-standing practice of authors and publishers to, effectively, split evenly the net proceeds of book sales. "
The Guild also warns against agencies acting as publishers, fearing that it could also raise conflicts of interest between their clients and themselves.
Ultimately, this battle is only beginning as the growing industry of digital publishing and ebooks becomes more of a major player in the traditional and non-traditional publishing world.