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The Odyssey of Andrew Wylie

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Thursday, Aug 12, 2010
As traditional print media is being slowly but irresistibly subsumed by electronic competitors, powerhouse agent Andrew Wylie argues that writers should get a larger cut of e-book sales. But is Wylie, in reality, seeking to destroy paper-based publishing houses?

Andrew Wylie, agent and head of the prestigious Wylie Agency, has been no stranger to controversy during his long career in the world of books. Lauded by some as a champion of writers and criticized by others as a “jackal” and “provocateur,” Wylie has developed a reputation that begs for comparisons with the character Ari Gold from HBO’s Entourage. Although dogged by charges of client stealing and other unethical practices, Wylie has come to represent over 700 hundred writers, including Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth, Dave Eggers, and the estates of Jorge Luis Borges, John Updike, and Norman Mailer.   


Last month, Wylie caused an upheaval in the publishing world with his announcement that he had given the exclusive digital distribution rights for 20 books whose authors he represents to Amazon.com for release on their Kindle electronic reading device. The books, which will be released through a new company established by Wylie, Odyssey Editions, are reflective of his reputation as a advocate of writers who have made substantive impacts on the world of literature as opposed to just being commercially popular. Included in the list of newly available e-books, priced at just $9.99, are Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Invisible Man, and Updike’s Rabbit series. Although not a fan of the Kindle originally (Wylie once stated in an interview, “I have a Kindle. I used it for an hour and a half and put it in the closet.”), this move shows the Wylie is not the type to let his personal hangups get in the way of his larger objectives. 
  
While the full ramifications of this action remain unclear, Wylie’s decision, which has gained the support of the Author’s Guild, has reverberated through the community of publishers who see this action as tantamount to an act of war. Random House immediately issued a statement, quoted from an article on the Huffington Post,  declaring that the, “...decision to sell e-books exclusively to Amazon for titles which are subject to active Random House agreements undermines our longstanding commitments to and investments in our authors, and it establishes this Agency as our direct competitor.” The statement continued, “Therefore, regrettably, Random House on a worldwide basis will not be entering into any new English-language business agreements with the Wylie Agency until this situation is resolved.” 


This type of drama seems a natural byproduct of the type of personality necessary to have accumulated such a stable of talent under one roof.  A piece from portfolio.com offers some background into this unique figure:


“Wylie grew up as the son of a respected book editor in an old-money Boston family, studied French literature at Harvard, and entered the publishing game relatively late in life, when he was already in his 30s, after a misspent youth of Bohemian excess, which included hanging out with Andy Warhol, writing dirty poetry, and partaking of all manner of dangerous drugs.”


Three decades later Wylie is now one of the most powerful people in publishing, whose resulting infamy and iconoclastic background seems to have carved an image that has polarized around two distinct narratives. The first is of a hard-bargaining, shrewd businessman who fights for the rights and interests of his client; a type of maverick who takes on the powerful publishers for the artists he represents and the integrity of what they do. The other narrative invokes images of an aggressive opportunist who steals other agency’s clients, and demands exorbitant contracts so that it can pad his own agent’s fee. Whichever narrative one chooses to subscribe to, Odyssey Editions seems completely consistent with both versions of the man.


Critics of Wylie have three primary complaints about his plans. The first and most important is that some argue that he doesn’t actually have the rights to distribute these titles. The July 23 podcast for the New York Times Book Review explains that Wylie is taking advantage of ambiguities in the contracts between the writers he represents and the publishing companies. Since these deals were drawn up at a time when e-books and digital distribution rights weren’t an issue, they aren’t covered. Consequently, Wylie contends that his actions are completely legal and well within the rights of the authors, and executors of various deceased writer’s estates, that he represents. Despite this, some publishers like Random House are claiming that Odyssey Editions is in violation of their contracts and rumors of legal consequences are pervasive.


The second attack is on the exclusivity of the deal with Amazon. Some wonder at the wisdom of allowing access only through one e-reader platform when there are currently a multitude of online bookstores available. Intuitively, the more digital retailers that have access to Odyssey Edition’s wares, the more money the imprint and its authors stand to make. John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, wrote in his blog that the move, “is an extraordinarily bad deal for writers, illustrators, publishers, other booksellers, and for anyone who believes that books should be as widely available as possible.” Peter Osnos continues on this theme in his article on Wylie in The Atlantic, stating that, “limiting accessibility of backlist classics showed a clumsiness that seems to undermine Wiley’s previous reputation for shrewdness.”


The final major criticism made against Wylie and Odyssey Editions is that this move will ultimately mean the death of publishing as the industry currently exists today. Some contend that if publishers are edged out of the market and agencies like Wylie’s take advantage of the more direct line to consumers provided by digital media that longstanding and primarily paper-based institutions will fall. Penguin publishing chief, John Makinson, was quick to stifle these rumors according to thebookseller.com which reported that the publishing executive doesn’t see a lot of substantive commercial value in the Odyssey imprint. He contends that all the responsibilities inherent in book publishing will make the possibility of a wide-spread direct market revolt by talent agencies highly unlikely.


While publishers may debate the true economic impact of Wylie’s move, the benefits for Amazon.com however are abundantly clear, particularly with the so-called e-reader wars currently heating up. The online superstore, which recently announced that digital books were outselling hardcovers, has been able to maintain the lion’s share of the e-book market with its ground-breaking Kindle, but stiff opposition is approaching. Barnes and Noble, which entered the e-reader market last November, is making its device, the Nook, a central part of its business plan, and with hundreds of storefronts allowing access to customers that might be beyond Amazon’s reach, it may become a growing threat. Apple’s iPad, which some labeled the “Kindle-killer” also represents a growing threat to Amazon’s market dominance; particularly with rumors of the release of a smaller, cheaper version of the device specifically intended as a an e-reader making the rounds. With an exclusive list of titles representing some of the finest works of contemporary fiction available, Amazon is working to maintain its hegemony over the new digital market and Odyssey Editions represents at the very least a perceptual, if not outright commercial, victory in achieving that goal.


Some however look at all the Sturm und Drang caused by Wylie’s move and see nothing more then an epic escalation in the ongoing negotiations over digital rights. As has noted by both fans and critics, Wylie’s decision has forced the issue of author royalties in an increasingly digital world to the forefront. As traditional print media is being slowly but irresistibly subsumed by electronic competitors, Wylie has long been arguing that writer’s should get a larger cut of e-book sales. The agent, according to an article in the Financial Times, spent nine months trying to negotiate better deals for writers before deciding to move on his own. Wylie, the article continues is threatening to up the ante even further, stating, “if we do not reach an accord, Odyssey will grow. It will not publish 20 books, it will publish 2,000 and have outside investors and make itself available to other agents.”


These comments, coupled with the fact that the deal between Odyssey and Amazon expire in two years, can be interpreted not as a serious attempt by Wylie to destroy traditional publishing or become a long-standing part of it, but as a warning to companies like Random House to raise the royalties for authors on books sold in a digital format or else. Currently the position of publishers has been that writers should receive around 25 percent for digital sales, as noted by the Economist, while advocates of the authors say that 50 percent is more equitable, particularly when the paper-related overhead is removed from the equation. While some in the industry have argued that the pricing models that see digital publishing as significantly cheaper are flawed, it seems clear that Wylie is in a position to either force a compromise from the publishers, or to be able to punish their recalcitrance with greater expansion into the digital market.   


The end of this showdown between Wylie and the publishers does not look to have an immediate end in sight. For the future it seems that both sides will use their respective resources to try and jockey for position and gather support—there is already a mock Twitter war going on between unofficial advocates of both sides of the issue. Whether for good or ill Wylie, who in many ways has become the story, has made his mark on the world of digital publishing the same way both critics and fans agree he made his mark on the paper publishing world: aggressively. It remains to be seen if his tenacity will pay off or be labeled as a blunder.

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