By now I’m sure you’ve heard about Andrew Wylie, the literary agent who decided to start his own publishing company to produce e-book editions on Amazon.com. He started with 20 books which were published before e-books were even thought of. Despite that fact, Random House thought IT had the electronic rights to. This prompted Random House to declare it would no long do business with Wylie’s agency. This was potentially bad news for Wylie’s 700-plus clients, among whom are the estates of such literary giants as Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Ralph and John Updike.
The real question is obvious: who owns the rights to publish the e-book versions of books that were bought by publishers before e-books existed? Wylie was saying that those rights have not been sold and so belong to the author. And if a publisher holds those rights, what kind of royalty should authors get? These days 25% is common for e-books, although if you do it yourself on Amazon you can get 70%.
I can see how this can impact the survival of publishing companies. A lot of money is made from backlist books like Portnoy’s Complaint, The Invisible Man and the Rabbit books, and those books cost the publisher almost nothing to publish now. A couple of classics can make up for a new title that flops.
But as an author, I can’t accept a publisher making green off rights it didn’t pay for. And sometimes I think big publishers miss the point. They are no longer the only game in town. They don’t get to make all the rules as they did a couple of decades ago when the only way to get your book in front of buyers was to either invest tens of thousands of dollars to self publish or to accept whatever deal a publisher offered.
Regardless of how you feel about e-book rights, the unavoidable truth is that if publishers want to stay in business they have to attract good writers and if they hope to do that they will have to make a radical change. They will have to actually be NICE to authors and treat them with a little respect. They may even have to (gasp!) deal with them fairly.