Could 'The Jackal' Be the Death of Publishing?
Milmo, Cahal, The Independent (London, England)
Cahal Milmo reports on a deal between bookselling giant Amazon and one of the literary world's most ruthless agents
Until recently, Andrew Wylie, the doyen of literary agents, whose feral pursuit of clients and their interests earned him the nickname "The Jackal", had little time for e-book readers. When asked about his ownership of one of the gadgets hailed as the future of publishing, he said: "I used it for an hour and a half and put it in the closet."
But whatever his personal feelings, Wylie has decided to embrace the brave new world of virtual books - sparking a bitter backlash from some of the world's largest publishers and prompting talk of nothing less than the demise of 500 years of publishing history. The reason? A deal between the American agent and Amazon to sell electronic versions of works by an array of literary superstars.
Under a new digital-only imprint, Odyssey Editions, Wylie has arranged to sell 20 contemporary classics such as Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Martin Amis's London Fields exclusively through Amazon.com - and in so doing cut the recession-hit original publishers of those books out of a potentially lucrative source of income.
The outbreak of bad-tempered bickering in the normally outwardly sedate world of books has seen Wylie's latest initiative variously described as an "extraordinarily bad deal" and "very disappointing".
Wylie, whose roster of 700 authors from Chinua Achebe to Norman Mailer makes him one of global publishing's most influential powerbrokers, is exploiting a gap in contracts signed by writers long before e-books had been thought of, which leaves them free to negotiate separate deals to sell electronic versions.
With the sort of steely will and eye for the bottom line that helped him wrest authors such as Amis from their previous agents with six-figure deals, Wylie presented the initiative as an opening up of modern masterpieces by the likes of William Burroughs and Vladimir Nabokov to an electronic audience.
In a statement, he said: "As the market for e-books grows, it will be important for readers to have access in e-book format to the contemporary literature the world has to offer. This publishing programme is designed to address that need, and to help e-book readers build a digital library of contemporary literature."
The move has been met with a stern response from leading publishers. At a time when UK book sales have fallen by 73m copies and revenues are stagnant at 3bn, any loss of income from so-called "back list" titles by established authors who need little promotion is a bitter blow.
Victoria Barnsley, chief executive of HarperCollins in Britain, which has printing rights to three of the works on the Odyssey list, said: "HarperCollins will vigorously protect its rights and our authors' interests by ensuring their work gets to the broadest possible audience. The only winners in this are Amazon."
Random House, which last week announced it was severing ties with the Wylie Agency by halting any new deals with the organisation over the digital deal, told The Independent it was "in negotiations" with Amazon after it sent a letter to the internet retailer formally disputing its right to "legally sell these titles".
In a statement, Random House said that Wylie's decision to sign an exclusive deal with Amazon "undermines our longstanding commitments to and investments in our authors, and it establishes this agency as our direct competitor".
The literary stand-off is just the latest skirmish in an increasingly frantic turf war between authors and agents on one side and publishers on the other for a slice of the growing e-books market. The battle intensified last December when Markus Dohle, German chief executive of Random House, sent a letter to literary agents declaring that the publisher's older contracts still gave it "the exclusive right to publish in electronic book publishing formats". …