Friday, July 30, 2010

Is Andrew Wylie Just Lazy?

If you follow publishing news, then you are no doubt aware that Andrew Wylie has turned the publishing world on its head and greatly annoyed Random House recently. How? By taking some of the world's most prestigious and widely read books and turning them into eBooks himself and selling them exclusively through Amazon. Random House is so incensed, it has said it will no longer acquire rights to publish books represented by him in the US. Note well, the "US" part. I guess they couldn't get the UK and other divisions to agree. The Authors Guild is also concerned and published its thoughts on the matter here: Its big concern, which has been parroted by others, including Macmillan CEO John "the man who broke Amazon's hold on eBook pricing" Sargent, is that Amazon has these titles exclusively.

What no one seems to be considering is that perhaps this is just "for now." I haven't seen anything about how long Amazon will have these titles exclusively, but am confident it is not forever. Ultimately, there will be availability in other formats, I'm sure, since Andrew Wylie is not known to be unintelligent and Scott Moyers, who works for him, is one of the smartest guys in publishing. So there's gotta be a plan to expand to other formats than the Kindle and to not sell just via Amazon. Of this I am sure.

What I'm not sure about is why he started with just Amazon and the only conclusion I can reach is maybe he's a bit lazy. Certainly he is following the path that is easiest. All Amazon probably wanted out of this was, well, nothing. I mean no files, no books (one presumes they have copies of all of them), no deliverables other than signed contracts. Thus, it was likely very quick and very easy to set up this deal and get this done. Other formats? Sure. When we don't have to do anything to produce them or when we've got the time to find someone to produce them. After all, finding a vendor who can convert your books to eBooks and let you walk off with the file ready to use can't be easy. The companies that do this want to host your titles and be the "distributor" as well. Sure, you can buy software to convert them yourselves, but what if you don't want to be an eBook publisher?

Honestly, I have no idea why Andrew Wylie wants to be an eBook publisher. Seems like a huge headache. I'm sure Random House would gladly have come to quite favorable terms to publish the eBooks in question. Yet he did it himself. To get 10% or 15% of 70% of $9.99? Hmm. Let's see. (Doing math here; one moment, please.) At 15%, that's $1.05. But when I look over the Kindle best-seller list, I see a lot of books at $12.99. Assuming that price and a 30% commission to Amazon and a 25% of amount received royalty, he'd get about 35 cents per copy sold. His authors would also lose out, of course, since 100% of 70% is better than 25% of 70%. Hmm. Maybe I should try and become an eBook publisher!

My guess, though, is that this is more Moyers's plan than Wylie's. Consider that Scott used to work in-house at a very high level. He was Editor-in-Chief of The Penguin Press and I have no doubt that he'd liked to have been Publisher someday, but that couldn't really happen there. So when Andrew Wylie comes knocking and offering a job, why not take it? After all, if you look carefully, you can see a future where agents are the publishers, just as managers in Hollywood have become producers. As agents or managers of authors, we can all start to look for ways to circumvent the traditional publishing model, especially since publishers are becoming more and more belligerent and unwilling to negotiate reasonably. The Authors Guild says that publishers have brought this on themselves and they are entirely correct. While never said out loud, all of my recent contract negotiations have had the sub-text of "we are doing you a favor publishing this book and it will be on our terms or it won't be at all." This is a far cry from the gentlemanly (or gentlewomanly) world of publishing where editors were excited to find great books and eager to negotiate good terms with both the agent and the author, keeping in mind that someday the publisher might want to do business with one or both of them again, say on the next book! Today publishers seem more eager to huff and puff and blow the agent's house down, to be pigs gluttonously swallowing up rights and shitting out poor royalty rates and splits and worse marketing and promotion. Why, after all, has the "platform" become such a huge part of non-fiction publishing? Because publishers don't want to pay to "make" a book in the marketplace anymore.

Once upon a time, the book was the platform. You were a good writer, you wrote a good book, your publisher promoted it, and then you were forever trumpeted as the "author of the NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLING book." But no more. Now you must have a "platform," that ensures that readers will come to your book and that the publisher need do little or nothing to promote it. You practically need to be on Oprah's speed dial for publishers to pay attention to your non-fiction proposal these days.

And I get why. The marketplace is tougher. The industry is tougher. Publishers feel they must get more for their money to make money. So be it. But don't be surprised if agents and authors turn around and decide they can do better dealing directly with bookstores. I remember sitting around with friends and discussing why Stephen King even needed a publisher anymore. One assumes he has a very non-standard deal with publishers and so if he weighed the cost of developing a relationship with a printer and bindery and a call center to take orders and a distributor to fulfill those orders, it quickly looks better to go with a publisher that has all those things, and just split the money fifty-fifty, which is what everyone presumes Stephen King does.

And, ultimately, that argument may make sense for every other author out there who wants to self-publish. Isn't it cheaper to do business with a publisher that already has the resources in place? But eBooks are different. The resources are few and the outlets, e.g., Amazon, are more than happy to do business with you. One former client of mine whose son happens to be a graphic designer (hence, new cover art) told me he is selling 1,000 copies of his books a month via Amazon. Can he live on this? I'm sure not. But it's a heck of a lot more than beer money.

So Andrew Wylie may not be lazy. He may just be following the quickest path toward the inevitable and in doing so, he may be changing the game the same way that John Sargent did when he told Amazon they'd have to accept the agency model. Sargent broke Amazon's grip, at least in part, on the book-publishing business. Now if he does the same thing with print books and does away with deep-discounts, he could be my hero. In the meantime, though, I think Wylie has done something that really will keep publishers awake at night for a while. The result, I'm sure, will be even harsher negotiations, but we could see seven- and eight-figure authors demanding that publishers be happy with the print rights and then go deal direct on the eBook rights. If so, it will really be the start of a new era in publishing and one in which publishers may find themselves no longer the biggest carnivore in the jungle.

My guess is that this will all get us back to the fifty percent of amount received royalty rate that was once in place. Perhaps it will even get us to a higher rate for authors, e.g., seventy-five or eighty percent, similar to the rates paid for rights sold in the UK or for translation. Conversion costs are coming down. Hosting costs are minimal. DRM is disappearing. And 50% or 20% or 25% is all better than 0% for publishers.



Suzi McGowen said...

Wylie said it the exclusive contract was for two years.

What I want to know is if more authors are deciding not to send their books to Wylie, (on the theory that publishers are mad at him).

Or, are more authors thinking about sending them to Wylie, because who wouldn't want an agent known as "the Jackel" on your side? :)

Andrew Zack said...

Thanks for that piece of information, of which I was not aware.

As for question one, only Wylie can answer it. As for question two, I don't think he has ever wanted for submissions. Will this get him more? I suspect it might.


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