This morning's news that The Wylie Agency has launched a digital imprint, which will sell e-books exclusively through Amazon, is one of those unsurprising surprises, to paraphrase the former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld.
Andrew Wylie has made his thoughts on e-royalties well known, and as individual authors have already made the jump to selling e-books without their usual print publisher, it was only a matter of time before a more formal arrangement was made.
But still, the announcement has caused quite a stir.
I've requested to speak to the man behind the move, but have been told he is now on vacation. So, instead I thought I'd highlight what I see as some of the issues he and his authors will have hopefully considered before taking this step. These are just my general musings - I'm sure there will be plenty of areas I haven't even considered, so please feel free to point out the gaps in the comments.
Of course there are several aspects to look at. The most obvious is that by linking up exclusively with Amazon, Wylie has cut off all bar one of its sales channels, and irritated a large swathe of the retailing community in one easy step. It may be a savvy move - in the grand scheme of things, upsetting a few high street booksellers who were unliekly to make much of a dent in e-book sales is probably worth it - but it seems rather short-termist when you consider the emergence of Apple and the iBookstore, and the imminent arrival of Google Editions.
Another major consideration is the future value of rights when he and his agents go to sell, say, the next Salman Rushdie novel. Could a publisher conceivably pay an equivalent advance for print rights alone knowing in all probability a competing edition will be launched digitally at some point? As Evan Schnittman has already pointed out in his excellent blog BlackPlasticGlasses, these formats are competing against each other, so it is inevitable that print sales will diminish as digital sales increase, meaning the value of print rights will also go down. Why would a publisher pay the same money for something that will never earn as much? And - although Wylie holds the cards for the time being - he may find some of those publishers less friendly when he returns, even to sell the print rights in future.
Another thing that should be looked at is the type of author the list is being built around. At this stage, it's not clear which will be released internationally, but working on the basis that it could be any of them, poor old Penguin (at least in the UK) has suffered the biggest hit, with seven of its authors going to Odyssey. Vintage has lost four, while Harper has lost three, Picador two, and Faber brings up the rear with one.
These authors are major literary names - but, aside from a notable handful, which includes Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, they are not active frontlist brands, as most are dead. If you have to worry about selling in your next novel to a publisher who had been snubbed for digital rights, the deal might seem less appealing.
Whether the agency has any plans to open negotiations for publishers to buy e-rights if it's at the "right price" is unclear - although why Wylie would go to the trouble of setting up a new company as an act of posturing is beyond me - but given his comments in the past, this move is motivated by a desire to get the best deal for his authors. In the long term, I'm not sure if that has been achieved.
All this is of course forgetting the impact on one fairly core group - the readers.
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