The Screw You eBook Deal

Every week it seems something new is happening in eBookland to set the ebook cause back a decade or two. Always at the forefront of the reversal of fortune is greed.

This week’s menace to eBookland is literary agent Andrew Wylie and his new publishing venture Odyssey. Wylie could have summed up his actions in simple terms: to disserve both his clients and the ebook-buying public. What, you ask, did he do? He agreed to give Amazon exclusive rights for 2 years to his authors’ backlist titles; Wylie will publish the books and exclusively sell them through Amazon. The backlist includes authors like Philip Roth, Ralph Ellison, and John Updike.

This is tragic on many levels. First, unless he has been given exclusive information by Amazon, he really doesn’t know how much of the ebook market Amazon “dominates.” All Amazon says is “we’re #1? but has yet to actually prove it. Everyone assumes it is true, but without hard data, it is just an assumption (and you know what assuming does — it makes an ass of u and me!).

Second, even if Amazon has the largest single-vendor market share, it isn’t certain that how dominant a market share it has when all players are considered. Everyone assumes it does, but no one really knows — Amazon hasn’t put any real numbers on the table, just the hype, which makes me suspect that that’s all it is –hype.

Third, contrary to what Wylie thinks about his backlist authors, there is nothing out in the open that demonstrates that they are worth the $9.99 that is planned to be charged. What data does Wylie have to demonstrate that $9.99 is the ideal market price point for decades old books? I might reread Ellison at $1.99, but not at $9.99 — he (and Roth and Updike) just aren’t that good. Wylie complains about the Agency 5 pricing and then proceeds to draw a number out of the air himself.

Fourth, 2 years is a long time to exclude all other ebooksellers from having the ability to sell these books. It ignores the thousands, if not millions, of readers who do not buy from Amazon and who do not own a Kindle (and who do not want to read on their PCs or cell phones). If Wylie were my agent, I’d be looking for another one. As a writer I wouldn’t want thousands (millions) of potential readers excluded. As icing on the cake, no one knows whether at the end of the 2 years Amazon has an option to extend that exclusivity. It would fit Amazon’s usual tactics.

Fifth, if Wylie’s goal is to sell as many of his client’s books as is possible, why would he give exclusivity to a company who uses a format that is incompatible with every other ebook-reading device? I hear the pundits now: Because Amazon has an application that lets you read on nearly every device imaginable, just not other dedicated ebook reading devices.

This argument intrigues me. I understand James Patterson or Stephen King taking this position because they are currently writing bestsellers. The likelihood that someone will agree to read the latest James Patterson novel on their mobile phone or their PC is decent — not great but decent. But will these same people want to read a long ago Roth or Ellison or Updike novel that way? I have my doubts. I don’t personally know anyone who reads a book sitting at their desk on their PC or on their cell phones for pleasure (although I am assured that there are people who do), because that is what we are talking about — pleasure/leisure reading.

The argument also discounts all the people who buy ebooks at, for example, Barnes & Noble, which also has applications for various devices and keeps adding them. Are we to be an ebook world of Amazon only, perhaps a little B&N, but no one else?

Sixth, is the arrogance factor. Wylie doesn’t like the Agency 5?s pricing. Fine. Most ebookers don’t either. But you tell me how giving Amazon 2-year exclusivity at $9.99 sends any message of dislike about Agency 5 pricing to the Agency 5 — or even to the consumer. The only message I get is the one to the consumer, which is “screw you! If Amazon is willing to pay enough for exclusivity, I could care less whether you can read my author’s books.” Reminds me of an old radio ad: “Money talks and nobody walks!”

I admit that John Sargent’s (Macmillan) response was laughable in light of his own actions as a founder of the Agency 5. But even so, his response was on target. This exclusivity deal is not good for anyone. Is the goal to discourage reading and drive sales down? If so, these long-term exclusivity deals are a good step in that direction. People are interested in buying books only if they are available when they want them, in the form they want them, and at a price they are willing to pay. Wylie’s exclusivity deal is a 3-strike out: the books aren’t available to many readers in a form they want at a price they want to pay for ghosts from the past — $9.99 is the price point for new bestsellers, not old books from has-been authors.

And did Wylie give any thought to what state of affairs he is helping to create in the long-term? If giving a 2-year exclusive deal to Amazon is his idea of long-term strategic thinking on behalf of clients, he needs to get off his meds. Giving Amazon these kinds of deals plays into Amazon’s long-term goals of dominating ebook publishing and being able to dictate all terms. Every exclusive deal adds a nail to the coffin of marketplace competition because once Amazon sews up a significant portion of the market in these kinds of deals, Amazon will be able to dictate terms — all other competition will have been buried because they can’t get product to sell and they won’t be able to sell for less than Amazon. (That is also one of the problems with the Agency 5 thinking but at least they make their books available to everyone.)

Now that I have castigated Wylie, a punch needs to be thrown at the Agency 5 who brought this about. What did the Agency 5 think Amazon would do in reaction to their concerted efforts to control pricing? Amazon has done the smart thing for Amazon (although not, ultimately, for the consumer) in pursuing these exclusivity agreements. If anything will undermine the Agency 5, it is these deals. Unfortunately, consumers will be collateral damage. The Agency 5 thought Apple would be their savior; they were willing to overlook the fact that Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are identical twins. And so they pushed Amazon and now Amazon has pushed back.

Wylie has made what I consider to be a fool’s deal, but the deal is of the Agency 5?s making. “You shall reap what you sow” should become the motto of the Agency 5; Andrew Wylie should resurrect as his motto “Money talks, nobody walks.”

reposted with permission from An American Editor


  1. Alexander Inglis26 July, 2010

    There’s nothing tragic about the deal. The tragedy is the hype surrounding the nonsensical “danger” of authors and agents maximizing their own profits.

    There are about 30 titles in the deal, all “contemporary classics” that have circulated in many forms for years. If you want to read Nabokov’s Lolita, you can buy it in paperback, hardcover, in English and many other languages, find it in your local bookshop, a used bookshop, via online distributor, and from any credible bookseller offering English classics anywhere in the world, in print today.

    Tragic? Please. Let’s quickly examine the blogger’s proof-points.

    1. Amazon claims to be number one in the e-book market. This is almost certainly fact. Do Andrew Wylie and his authors believe it? Why does Amazon need to “prove” it to anyone else? No tragedy here.

    2. The blogger’s suspicion that Amazon isn’t “dominant” in e-book distribution — he himself offers no shred of evidence to demonstrate a basis for his suspicions — well, that’s called opinion. No tragedy here either.

    3. Wylie and Amazon have chosen $9.99 as the “list” price for these works. The blogger feels that “Roth and Updike just aren’t that good”. He’d pay $1.99 for Ellison. Works get to be called classics because a LOT of people think a work is worth something — including time to consume it. This is a “benchmark” price for New York Times best-sellers — like that or not. Wylie choosing this as an opening price? Nope, no tragedy here either.

    4. Hardly any deals in publishing include clauses running for less than two years. The authors, agent and vendor agreed: that’s the open market at work. The notion that the distribution deal means consumers are shut out is nonsense; Amazon will sell to anyone. Not tragic.

    5. I hope Wylie’s goal is NOT to sell as many books as possible; if he were my agent that would be grounds for immediate dismissal. The agent’s goal is to obtain the best deal, generating the maximum return to the author. That’s not tragic, that’s Wylie’s job.

    6. The arrogance factor. The blogger refers to Wylie’s authors and titles in the series — Martin Amis, Saul Bellow, Jorge Luis Borges, William S Burroughs, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Louise Erdrich, Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, VS Naipaul, Orhan Pamuk, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Oliver Sacks, Hunter S Thompson, John Updike and Evelyn Waugh — as “old books from has-been authors”. Arrogance? Yes, but not Wylie’s. That the blogger can’t see his own — now that’s a tragedy.

    Andrew Wylie is doing what an agent should: find creative new ways to sell (and resell) his author’s works to the public in clever news ways. He’s done that and shone a bright light around the offering. (That’s called smart marketing, another part of an agent’s job.) If someone insists on reading these ebooks on a Sony reader, well, they’ll have to wait. But the works themselves are widely available in other formats for the impatient or those who, for their own reasons, choose not to do ebook business with Amazon.

    The tragedy is how vocal members of the established book eco-system can be so bitter and angry when change arrives in their industry. Thirty books in an ebook deal — and apparently according to the blogger not very good ones — provokes this tirade of half-baked argument and vitriol. There’s your tragedy.

  2. Peter S Hart29 June, 2011

    “I could care less whether you can read my author’s books.” No, it’s “…couldn’t care less….” If we are going to speak about books and publishing, i.e. “literature,” let’s remain literate. There’s too much anti-literacy in the world as it is, especially in the world of e-books.


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