The advent of e-books should be hailed as a great day for authors. Ultimately they can reduce the barriers that stand between an authors’ labour of love and the thousands (or millions) of bedside tables that want to nurse them to sleep. The traditional expenses of physical printing are cut dramatically, and if an author owns a computer they can even self publish! However, in spite of the reduced costs for publishers, authors are generally being offered the same royalty rates for e-book editions as for paper editions. This has ignited grumbles amongst associations like the US Author’s Guild who advocate better returns for authors. (Check out the article “E-Book Royalty Math" for an in-depth discussion).
And indeed, the whole ecology of the author, agent, publisher system is being disturbed as the environment around it is changing at a rapid pace. A symptom of this disruption appeared in last year with a showdown between The Wylie Agency (an established and pushy literary agency headed by Andrew Wylie) and the publisher Random House. In a provocative and irritating move, Wylie established Odessy Editions, effectively an electronic publisher which would completely cut out the middle man (in this case, Random House).
Because Random House owned the rights to some of the books e-published by Wylie the dispute was eventually settled out of court and the infringing editions removed. But despite the unspectacular resolution to this act of blatant rebellion, still acts as a warning to publishers who are not willing to evolve alongside the revolutions in electronic content creation. It suggests a shift in the future towards higher royalties for authors, an acknowledgement that without them publishers would have nothing to publish.
One issue that was raised in the debate surrounding Wylie’s stint of author (and agent) advocacy must also be mentioned here. The deal Wylie made was exclusively with Amazon, which is already undoubtedly a dominant player in the world of book retail. Such an exclusive contract does not bode well for the principles of diversity, open access and the free exchange of ideas in society, which independent retailers vehemently protect. The article “Wylie-Amazon: Publishers Have Largely Brought This on Themselves. Amazon Exclusivity is Major Concern" offers a good discussion of issues surrounding the exclusive contract.
This event also suggests greater changes for the ecology of publishing in the future, especially the relationship between authors, literary agents and publishers. Agents roles may have to change as they are faced with more complicated contracts (about digital rights management, electronic distribution and electronic copyright) as well as authors who feel more entitled and deserving, bloated with the feeling “I can do it myself”.
On this topic, I spoke with Philipa Masson, literary agent at Curtis and Brown. She explained that the biggest impact of the e-book for her daily job is the shift from selling the product to selling the author. ”There has to be a story behind the story,” she says “people want to know everything they can about the author.” For her job, this means making sure her clients have websites, bios, twitter feeds, blogs. You name it, your readers want it. ”Its about connection,” she says. Exactly what the future will hold in this industry depends on many things. How well major publishers and retailers take up the challenges associated with electronic conent, how many other Wylies are out there ready and willing to take a stand for their own jobs and for their authors, and whether the principles of freedom and access are upheld.