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Wylie, Random House settle e-books dispute, but Godin goes his own way

Earlier this month, we wrote about Odyssey Editions, the new venture by literary super-agent Andrew Wylie and Amazon's Kindle e-books division to bypass the traditional big six "legacy" publishing houses and make the digital rights to 20 "modern classics" available exclusively from Amazon.

The move prompted a strong response from the publishing houses, most notably Random House -- the world's largest English-language general trade book publisher -- which announced that it would cease to negotiate new business with all authors represented by the Wylie Agency until disputed claims concerning digital rights to the Random House titles in question and the exclusivity of Wylie's agreement with Amazon could be resolved. Thirteen of the 20 titles in Wylie's Odyssey Editions were originally Random House books.

On Tuesday, Random House's Chairman and CEO Markus Dohle and Andrew Wylie, president of the Wylie Agency, released a joint statement that read as follows:

"We are pleased to announce that The Wylie Agency and Random House have resolved our differences over the disputed Random House titles which have been included in the Odyssey Editions e-book publishing program. These titles are being removed from that program and taken off-sale. 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. The titles soon will be available for sale on a non-exclusive basis through all of Random House's current e-book customers. Random House is resuming normal business relations with the Wylie Agency for English-language manuscript submissions and potential acquisitions, and we both are glad to be able to put this matter behind us."

The settlement appears to be a complete victory for Random House's position, although we don't know if Wylie was able to negotiate better royalty terms for the digital rights to the books by Random House authors he represents by agreeing to yield those rights back to the publisher. In the end, Wylie's impressive client list -- perhaps the most prestigious in the publishing world -- was more of a liability than an asset in the negotiations. While he could threaten to take the digital rights to hundreds, even thousands of backlist and current titles directly to Amazon via Odyssey Editions, Wylie could do so only at the risk of alienating the same publishers he relies on to produce his clients' hard- and soft-cover titles. 

E-books may represent the future, or at least a part of the future, of publishing. They are certainly the largest growing segment of he book market. But they currently represent less than 10 percent of total sales revenue of that market. One can only imagine the consternation Random House's response to Wylie's gambit set off among the world-class authors he represents that are published by Random House's prestigious Alfred A. Knopf, Doubleday, Modern Library, Pantheon, Schoken and Vintage Books divisions. 

Since Wylie didn't ascend to his current status in the literary world by systematically overplaying his hand, we suspect Odyssey Editions may have been his ploy to force the legacy publishers to establish a separate fair market value for the digital rights for literary works, rather than consider them as an ancillary market to the negotiations for the rights to books in print. In several interviews around the time of the announcement of the formation of Odyssey Books in July, Wylie talked about "proving a point" with this venture.

While in the process of posting this piece, we've learned that Penguin Books' UK division had also entered into a "conversation" with Wylie that might result in their recovering the digital rights to the Penquin titles in the Odyssey editions download catalogue. 

But even as the threat to legacy publishers represented by Odyssey Editions appeared to dissipate, the trend toward established non-fiction authors bypassing the mainstream publishing industry continued with the announcement by marketing guru Seth Godin -- a Buffalo native and the author of the best-selling books Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable and Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (both published by Portfolio Books, an imprint of  Penguin Group USA) -- that he had "decided not to publish any more books in the traditional way."

In an interview with mediabistro.com, Godin, widely considered the most influential thinker in business marketing today, left no doubt about his view that the publishing industry business model was already an anachronism:

The book industry does a great, fabulous, miraculous job of doing what they needed to do in 1965. Great jobs for good people. Ethics that matter. Good taste. Products to be proud of. In terms of responding to changes in the world, I'm at a loss to think of one thing the book industry does well in 2010 that it wasn't already doing in 1990. Not one new thing done well...

I've decided not to publish any more books in the traditional way. ... I like the people, but I can't abide the long wait, the filters, the big push at launch, the nudging to get people to go to a store they don't usually visit to buy something they don't usually buy, to get them to pay for an idea in a form that's hard to spread. ... I really don't think the process is worth the effort that it now takes to make it work. I can reach 10 or 50 times as many people electronically. No, it's not 'better,' but it's different. So, while I'm not sure what format my writing will take, I'm not planning on it being the 1907 version of hardcover publishing any longer.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Godin intends "to sell his future works directly to his fans," releasing his subsequent titles in "electronic books, via print-on-demand or in such formats as audiobooks, apps, small digital files [sic] called PDFs and podcasts."

--R.D. Pohl

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