The BS column: Ebooks and Wylie’s War

What Gutenberg really did when he invented the printing press was simple: he changed the relationship between book and reader. It’s often forgotten that pre-Gutenberg, you were either a patron—able to afford to commission your own manuscript, copied painstakingly by scribes from an exemplar—or a privileged member of the Church, or, more commonly, just a listener.

What the arrival of the e-book has done is to change the relationship between publisher and reader, and the rising screams of distress you’ve heard over the last decade has been the response of the publishing industry, in general. Statistics support the idea that the e-book, and e-reading, are not passing fads, despite the nostalgia many of us have for the scent and feel of the printed page. The Kindle and the iPad are game-changers, and every significant trend indicates that e-readers will rule the markets over the next decade, even in relatively slow-adopting countries like India.

The problems before the publishing industry are complex. The customer wants e-books cheaper, arguing that s/he isn’t getting a paper book, and should pay significantly less. The author wants a better cut, arguing that publishers don’t have to carry the distribution and warehousing costs involved with print. There are aggressively unpleasant wars over monopolies: will Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Google end up owning digital rights, which e-reader will rule the market? Publishers, battling piracy issues, stuck in a model of geographical territories and royalties inherited in the 15th century, have been under siege for a while now.

This week, one of the UK’s top agents, the notoriously aggressive Andrew Wylie, promises to change the rules of the game in drastic fashion. Wylie has started Odyssey Editions, an initiative that will sell the digital versions of some of the greatest modern classics—from Updike’s Rabbit series to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children to Nabokov and Hunter Thompson. Wylie is offering better terms to authors, though he’s angered many who would otherwise encourage the growth of digital publishing by agreeing to a monopolistic deal with Amazon.

Odyssey Editions books will be available exclusively via Amazon’s Kindle store, which would be the equivalent of telling a buyer of a print book that he can only buy from Waterstones and only read his book in selected locations. This part of the deal makes absolutely no sense, and Wylie needs to consider the precedent he’s setting. But the fact that he’s offering authors a significantly larger percentage of profits for their work, and that readers will get their ebooks at a realistically cheap price is what’s upsetting some of the biggest names in publishing. At present, Random House has announced that they will not do new business with the Wylie Agency—which represents some of their top authors, including Rushdie—until the matter is resolved. Bluntly, expect pistols at dawn.

If Wylie had been acting in isolation, the publishing industry might be able to brand him as a maverick—there’s a reason why he’s called The Jackal, after all. But whenever the e-book debate comes up, it’s a good idea to take a look at what Japan’s doing, because trends in that nation tend to anticipate what will be happening in the rest of the world a year later.

Earlier this month, one of Japan’s hottest authors, Ryu Murakami, announced that he would publish his new book, A Singing Whale, as an ebook download in conjunction with the iPad. Murakami’s readership in Japan and elsewhere is huge—he may not be as well-known as the other author with the same surname, Haruki Murakami, but he is a highly-regarded, bestselling author. His defection from Kodansha, his print publisher, to epublishing is significant. It was foreshadowed by the decision Stephen King made years ago to release some of his books online before they were made available in print. While moving straight into ebook format and bypassing print won’t work for all authors, if it works for a significant set of influential writers, you’re looking at a game where the rules have changed beyond recognition.

It’s worth noting that the Japanese tech giant Sharp has plans to open an ebook store in Japan that will challenge the Amazon monopoly on ebookselling. And that in the world of e-readers, applications like the Nook, which promises to convert the Android phone into an e-reader, have just been launched. This debate is no longer about the ebook versus the printed book; realists need to accept that ebooks are already here and that despite the massive industry problems, e-readers have converted customers far more easily than anticipated.

What Wylie’s done this week with Odyssey Editions is to expose the fact that the modern printed-book publishing industry is a dinosaur. By and large, excluding a few innovative firms, publishing has treated ebooks like a version of print—in terms of design, pricing, distribution and author’s royalties. Wylie may not be redrawing the map the right way, but he has made his point. The old maps for the industry just aren’t going to work any more.






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