Random House's Backlist E-Book Deal With Andrew Wylie Leaves Much Unanswered

random house andrew wylie backlist ebook amazon kindle rights dealLast month, top literary agent Andrew Wylie caused a stir in publishing circles when he announced that his new venture, Odyssey Editions, would issue e-books of selected older works from authors he represents -- including some major names -- under a two-year exclusive with Amazon (AMZN). But the question of who actually owns the digital rights to works written before e-books were even a gleam in the publishing industry's eye is still unanswered, making Wylie's play for those titles a move that was guaranteed to raise disputes.

Indeed, the announcement upset Random House to the point where it declared it would no longer do business with Wylie, who represents many important authors (both living and dead) including John Updike, Philip Roth and Roberto Bolano. Now, though, that e-book experiment has reached a coda, and the warring factions have ceased their battle.

In a joint statement issued Tuesday afternoon, the Wylie Agency and Markus Dohle, CEO of Bertelsmann-owned Random House, jointly announced they had "resolved their differences" over who had the right to publish 13 of the 20 backlist titles originally available through Wylie's Odyssey Editions. "We have agreed that Random House shall be the exclusive e-book publisher of these titles for those territories in which Random House U.S. controls their rights," they said.

That means Amazon has lost its exclusive window, and the once-disputed titles will be available on all platforms through which Random House sells e-books. Seven are still listed on Odyssey Editions' website, however -- books that were originally published by companies like Simon & Schuster (CBS) and Penguin (PSO), which never engaged in a public dispute with the agency.

The settlement also means Random House will once again be able to acquire new books from Wylie's stable of authors, which means writers who have ongoing relationships with any of Random House's many imprints can breathe a sigh of relief that those cords won't be severed for reasons other than their choosing. (Conversely, some may be annoyed to have lost an easy opportunity to try their luck elsewhere.)

Random House Will Use Odyssey's Files -- For Now


The joint statement, however, doesn't begin to answer a whole host of questions. Neither the Wylie Agency nor Amazon responded to requests for comment, but The Financial Times learned the deal was brokered through two hourlong meetings between Dohle and Wylie and was ultimately "consistent with agreements [Random House has] reached with other literary agencies for other backlist e-book rights." Random House spokesperson Stuart Applebaum told DailyFinance that the standard e-book royalty offered to authors by the company, which starts at approximately 25% of net earnings but can go as high as 40% in some instances, would not be affected. "We here are engaged in constant discussions with literary agencies about mutually agreeable business terms for their backlist authors of ours. Unsurprisingly, these conversations are and always will be confidential. But each of them has been conducted in a spirit of openness and flexibility about overall deal points and specific financial issues on our side, and for the most part, on theirs as well."

Also at issue are the files themselves, created and formatted on Odyssey Editions' behalf by UK company Enhanced Editions, which is best known in the digital publishing world for creating apps for books by Nick Cave and Philip Pullman. Founder Peter Collingridge declined to comment, but Appelbaum said that for now, Random House will make use of those e-files "for the moment in order to immediately service our e-retailer pan-universe." Five of those titles are shipping to e-tailers this week, according to The Wall Street Journal. "We've already begun making changes to these files and will continue the changeover to have them soon mirror our RH e-book standards," Applebaum added.

As to figuring out who won or lost in the settlement, the bigger question is whether Wylie ever intended to be a digital publisher, or even fully understood what it meant. The origins of Odyssey Editions seemed scatter-shot and unfocused at best, starting with a May 11 incorporation filing with in state of Delaware, and a website domain registration six days later, on May 17, through the Wylie Agency, not Odyssey.

A Real Business, Or a Publicity Stunt?


Andrew Wylie first expressed public frustration about how large publishing houses handle their digital backlists in late June to Harvard Magazine, but magazine lead times being what they are, those remarks were likely made weeks before the issue went to press -- which makes the time frame from Odyssey Editions' inception to its launch seem less abrupt than it was perceived at the time.

But even for 20 titles -- or just seven, as the case may be now -- being an e-publisher is not just about finding a company to do the dirty work of file formatting, then handing over exclusive rights to a retailer as the path of least resistance. To be successful requires a solid infrastructure that multitasks the concerns of authors, publishers, distributors and technology companies. Considering that it's the offspring of a literary agency that represents 700 authors and employs far fewer personnel to handle those rights, Odyssey Editions smacks of a water-dipped toe, a publicity ploy, rather than a deep commitment to digital publishing.

Which leaves the biggest question of all: What does the Wylie/Random House deal mean for the future of digital publishing ventures? The flippant answer is that no one really knows yet, even as Amazon's newest version of the Kindle sells out faster than any other device they've made and the e-book market continues to grow. The more nuanced response is that Odyssey Editions was always a one-of-a-kind venture, hovering well outside the ever-expanding horizons of a most exciting -- and unpredictable -- future for existing and still nascent e-book ventures.

This piece has been modified since its original posting to correct typographical errors and to append an additional quotation from Random House spokesperson Stuart Applebaum.

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