We've reached some kind of tipping point in the digital vs print paradigm for storytelling. An agent - a BIG agent - is taking his clients completely digital for books already printed, and the print publishing industry is howling with rage.
But what's an agent supposed to do except get the best deals for clients?
Andrew Wylie's agency has more than 700 authors and author estates, including big names like Salmon Rushdie, John Updike, Martin Amis and Saul Bellow. He's done a deal with Amazon to put their classic works up in ebook form as "Odyssey Editions." Random House and MacMillan both are pitching hissy fits, saying Wylie has no e-rights, they do. Best story on the controversy may be The Guardian's version. (English papers still seem to retain the ability to explain what's going on, don't they?)
What's it all mean?
It means every author out there should be pulling for Wylie, because it's more royalties for authors. The big print boys want to keep taking most of the money from sales of classic books, even though the author's reputation is the only reason they'd bother printing up a new run. And they won't even print up a new run most of the time.
Yet along comes Amazon with a deal to give any author 70 percent royalties for ebooks priced below $10 and the dinosaurs of traditional publishing roar.
They're roaring at the sound the comet makes just before it hits.
For new authors, for aspiring authors, it means a couple of things. Mainly it means you need to actively guard your digital rights and only sell a publisher the right to print your book on paper unless you're so desperate you'll do anything to get a publisher. There's a big mess brewing right now as MacMillan and Random House sort out what kind of digital rights they actually have. Since a lot of these authors landed contracts before e-books were even dreamed of, it's an open question. You can bet, though, that new contracts for new authors spell out the publisher has rights not only to ebooks and talking books, but to content transmitted in any way in the future even if the form has not yet been invented. This move also means a lot of publishers are going to have to revisit exactly what royalties they'll pay from revenue that isn't as big an investment to realize.
For an established author, Wylie/Amazon/Odyssey is a wonderful development, a new revenue stream created by their own reputations. More for the author, less for the leeches.
For readers, it means more and more books available via Kindle for less than $10. It isn't part of the Guardian's story, but if you agree to price your ebook for less than $10 with Amazon, they give you 70 percent royalties. Some exceptions, but that's the big picture. It doesn't take a genius to figure that 70 percent of $10 is the same as 25 percent of $28 bucks, and that you'll sell more books for $10 than for $28. So look for more and more authors to put their ebooks out there below $10. Given the $25 to $30 prices for some of the drab fiction you can see on the shelf at brick-and-mortar bookstores these days, an ebook for about the price of a fast-food meal is a big bargain for readers while also producing more money for authors, without whom no one would be making any money at all.