For the past couple of months we have been reporting the ongoing struggle over the adoption of the agency model in the UK, with retailers and publishers seemingly on opposing sides of an argument that will govern the way we think about and sell e-books for years to come. One party we've hitherto neglected to mention in greater detail are the agents, but without these literary gatekeepers on side the model will surely collapse—even before the Competition Commission swats it down.
At The Bookseller we've been hearing some pretty negative responses to agency from some literary agents. Some are privately scathing, believing that publishers are using the model as a fig-leaf to stymie the growing digital market, protect print sales, and avoid the discussion over staggered digital royalty rates—which many agents now want.
Amazon has clearly picked up on the dissent. For a couple of years now it has been courting agents in an attempt to win them around to exclusive content deals, and it now has a new arrow for its quiver telling an Association of Authors Agents meeting held a couple of weeks ago that publishers on agency were cutting their own throats. Not many agents we've spoken to were convinced by Amazon: many still see it as a retailer, not a publisher (in private they use worse terms to describe Amazon executives).
And hence Annette Green's article on the View from Here magazine website, helpfully illustrated with a picture of the hapless comedic duo Laurel and Hardy. She writes: "In what seems to me a stupendously ill-judged attempt to revive the ghost of the Net Book Agreement, several major publishers have announced their adoption of the agency model of selling e-books." Pointing to discrepancies in price between print books and e-book equivalents, Green says the agency model presents real threats: "If the agency model spreads it risks two serious outcomes: the first will be the undermining of the whole, legitimate digital publishing market; the second, as a consequence, and more serious, is the open invitation to piracy."
I don't much buy the piracy argument. Availability is surely more important than price. Lack of availability gives people a good reason to seek out the pirate version; but the fact that it is too expensive merely serves as a convenient excuse. And I don't really see how agency risks "undermining of the whole, legitimate digital publishing market". Taking the power out of retailers' hands does not necessarily do this, though it does of course depend on publishers getting their pricing decisions right. One might counter argue that leaving pricing in the hands of Amazon risks undermining the whole, legitimate publishing market: not just the digital bit.
But here's the rub. It is publishers who need to be making these arguments, and they appear to be failing. In general agents don't want to deal with Amazon, or upset the delicate eco-system of today's publishing: they particularly don't want to disenfranchise those with whom they have worked for so long. But they have also told us that they simply cannot keep pushing the internet company away. As PFD's Caroline Michel told The Bookseller this week: “I do see publishers as the prime route, but we have to make sure we look at other routes too.”
That is extraordinary, given the close associations publishers enjoy with UK agents. But some agents say that publishers are simply burying their heads in the sand, unaware that Amazon is driving a huge bull-dozer along the shore.
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