Random House UK is to publish veteran author Tom Sharpe's backlist digitally after making a direct approach to the author without the involvement of his agent Sonia Land, chief executive of Sheil Land Associates.
The publisher informed his agent Sheil Land this week that the 83-year-old author of books such as Porterhouse Blue and Wilt had signed an addendum to his author contract allowing the publisher to issue 11 backlist books as e-books. The manner of the approach has been criticised by other agents and has infuriated Land. Anthony Goff, president of the Association of Authors Agents said violating the principle that publishers should not discuss contractual arrangements with agented authors direct was "unacceptable".
Cornerstone m.d. Susan Sandon travelled to Sharpe's home in Spain in order to discuss the publication of the author's forthcoming paperback The Wilt Inheritance, and concluded "months of conversations" with Sharpe over his e-book rights at that meeting. Sandon sent an email to Land informing her of Sharpe's decision. In the email she said Sharpe had been very keen to to see his backlist reproduced in digital format, and as a result had agreed to sign an amended contract.
Random House confirmed that a deal had been struck direct with the author. A Cornerstone spokesman added: "Susan has had a long and collaborative relationship with Tom Sharpe, and sees him on a regular basis."
Publication of the digital titles will coincide with the publication of The Wilt Inheritance in Arrow paperback on 26th May, with titles such as Blott on the Landscape, Grantchester Grind, and Wilt, becoming available for the first time. The Cornerstone spokesman added: "As Tom’s longstanding publisher we want to make his books as widely available as possible to maximise his income and to reach as wide an audience as possible in whatever format they prefer. Thanks to Tom’s full and considered support for our plans to make his backlist available digitally for the first time we can now fully market and promote both the physical and e-books whilst offering him the best possible protection from piracy."
It is not clear whether the development is a retaliation for Land's decision to publish Catherine Cookson's extensive backlist under her own imprint Peach Publishing, having offered the Cookson estate a greater share of the royalty rates. Transworld, Cookson's print publisher, is also owned by Random House. At the time Land named Sharpe as one of a number of authors who she might also consider taking direct.
Land was not available for comment, but a statement put out by the agency read: "Sheil Land is not alone in differing with Random House and other publishers over e-book royalty rates. Publishers are there to sell books and make money for the companies that own them. Agents are there to find the best publishers for their authors and look after their interests. Does Random House now regard it as open season, so that in the middle of any difficult negotiation they feel they have the right to go behind authors' appointed representatives' backs? Publishers' reluctance to share more equitably in the profits from e-books has been a stumbling block for years. It is time that they acknowledged here, as they have begun to do elsewhere, that a flat royalty rate can never be fair for an author of Tom Sharpe's stature." Sharpe has been represented by the agency for 30 years.
One agent, who preferred not to be named, described the direct approach as a "clear breach of ethics". Goff, an agent at David Higham and president of the AAA, said he could not comment on the particulars of this arrangement, but stressed the principle was very clear.
"Once an author has a deal with an agent, then for a publisher to go behind that agent's back for financial or contractual discussions is totally unacceptable. It is not just that agents don't want it, neither do authors. There is a reason agents are employed as advisers."
Publishers spoken to by The Bookseller confirmed that it was "unusual, but not unprecedented" and occurred when authors were unsatisfied with their agents. Goff said he could only recall one or two cases where this has happened in his life-time as an agent.
A rival publisher said the development was an inevitable consequence of the decision of some agents to begin publishing. "What did she expect? Sheil Land went into competition with Random House, not the other way round." A second publisher added: "Can they not see the irony in wanting to respect convention in some areas, but not in all?"