Ian Fleming's James Bond booksWith e-book sales set to hit double-digit annual figures, publishers are still struggling with a big issue: not owning the digital rights to key backlist titles. Ongoing sales from such books help hold up the overall bottom line. The James Bond novels by Ian Fleming are one such big-selling series, and, it turns out, Fleming's literary estate has been issuing the digital editions itself.

The news got wider play today, thanks to U.K. trade publication The Bookseller, which reported that in Britain, the 14 titles about 007 will be published as e-books for the very first time. But instead of licensing those rights to Penguin (PSO), Fleming's print publisher, Ian Fleming Publications is making the digital editions available directly. It's selling them as Kindle books through Amazon.co.uk (AMZN) and also via Waterstone's, the largest chain bookstore in Britain.

But Ian Fleming Publications quietly released digital editions for an American audience in early 2008, with the Bond novels available here via Amazon and through the Sony (SNE) store. The move was made easier because the print deal with Penguin on both sides of the Atlantic was brokered long before e-books were a serious consideration.

"We Were Very Lucky"

Getting the most out of the Bond brand, as the estate's managing director Corinne Turner told The Bookseller, was the rationale behind the decision to keep e-editions in-house: "Penguin accepted long ago that they didn't have the digital rights. Of course they wanted to do it, but why would we? With a brand like ours, people are looking for the books anyway, so the publicity and marketing will happen. It also gives us greater clarity of sales, which books are selling and where. We are very lucky to have such a big brand."

The big question will come in two years, when Penguin's print license to publish the Bond books is up. Publishers' contracts now stipulate that e-rights must be part of a book deal, and with rare exceptions, that holds. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for Penguin to renew its relationship with the Fleming Estate if e-book rights were off the table.

The estate may have some leverage because of the Bond's popularity across many different forms of media, and most fans don't automatically think of Penguin when they think of 007. Indeed, a new Bond novel, set in the present day, will be written by thriller writer Jeffery Deaver and published next May by Simon & Schuster (CBS) in both the U.S. and Britain.

The last time there was a big power grab to keep e-rights in-house -- when literary agent Andrew Wylie dabbled with e-publishing of marquee titles by clients like John Updike, Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis -- Random House ceased doing business with him for a while. Then they came to terms, and those e-book rights went back to the publisher.

Adding salt to the proverbial wound, Wylie's last two big deals were with Random House: a reported $2.5 million advance paid by imprint Knopf for Booker Prize-winning author Kiran Desai's new novel, and a global deal to many company imprints for Rushdie's memoir of his time in hiding, after a fatwa was issued over the 1989 publication of his novel The Satanic Verses.

However the e-rights situation eventually shakes out, those virtual streets will end up being paved with gold for the Ian Fleming Estate, no matter which entity is actually doing the publishing.


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