When agents Sonia Land and Ed Victor announced that they would begin publishing select authors works digitally I wrote that I thought the narrative that agents would disintermediate publishers was somewhat overstated and that a reverse tale might equally become true.
The news that we report today that Random House has approached the author Tom Sharpe direct and concluded a deal for his backlist e-book rights without recourse to his agent (Sonia Land chief executive of Sheil Land) shows that publishers will not go quietly into the night, and simply let the author brands they have built discard them.
Agents will fume: one said the gloves were now off. Anthony Goff, president of the Association of Authors Agents, told me that undermining the principle that publishers should not engage in contractual discussions with agented authors direct was "unacceptable". He said: "Once an author has a deal with an agent, then for a publisher to go behind that agent's back for financial or contractual discussions is totally unacceptable. It is not just that agents don't want it, neither do authors. There is a reason agents are employed as advisers."
But the publishers I spoke to took an entirely different point of view. One remarked on the irony of agents wanting to abide by some 'rules' but not others; a second said that it was simply the natural response from publishers who now find themselves in competition from agents.
Of course it could be that we are reading too much in what is clearly now a personal struggle between the two parties. When Land took Catherine Cookson's work digital through her own publishing company, she did so without contacting Transworld, part of Random House, assuming that it had no interest in the digital rights given that it had previously not shown any. At the time Land named Sharpe as one of a number of authors who she might also consider taking direct.
But one senior publishing executive who I mentioned the Random House deal to said it was "potentially more important" even than today's Waterstone's sale.
For its part Random House said it had had long conversations with Sharpe, who it claimed enjoys a "long and collaborative" relationship with Cornerstone m.d. Susan Sandon, who signed the addendum with the author at his home in Spain.
A Cornerstone spokesman said: "As Tom’s longstanding publisher we want to make his books as widely available as possible to maximise his income and to reach as wide an audience as possible in whatever format they prefer. Thanks to Tom’s full and considered support for our plans to make his backlist available digitally for the first time we can now fully market and promote both the physical and e-books whilst offering him the best possible protection from piracy."
Land was not available for comment, but a statement sent over by the agency read: "Sheil Land is not alone in differing with Random House and other publishers over e-book royalty rates. Publishers are there to sell books and make money for the companies that own them. Agents are there to find the best publishers' for their authors and look after their interests. Does Random House now regard it as open season, so that in the middle of any difficult negotiation they feel they have the right to go behind authors appointed representatives' backs? Publishers' reluctance to share more equitably in the profits from e-books has been a stumbling block for years. It is time that they acknowledged here, as they have begun to do elsewhere, that a flat royalty rate can never be fair for an author of Tom Sharpe's stature."
Last week I wrote that I did not think agents moving into publishing was entirely a victimless activity. Clearly if they do it well then it gives them a significant motive to continue doing it. Equally publishers skills as author managers could improve.
More worrying though is the break-down in trust between two sides of the same publishing coin, which is now spinning on its axis as a result of the digital quake.
The problem stems, of course, from the 25% royalty rate for digital books, which publishers have failed to convince agents is fair.
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