Random sabre rattling

Random sabre rattling

Peter Cox is clearly determined to exhibit no false shame when he articulated the thought that will have crossed the mind of most of the other literary agents in the English speaking world this morning: will Andrew Wylie be able to hold on to his clients now that Random House have turned their big guns on the Wylie agency for having the temerity to make a foray into e-book publishing?

There is also no little amusement to be derived from Random House’s outraged condemnation of Wylie as a competitor a mere two days after Bertelsmann’s announcement that it is moving into the e-book retailing business. Will Amazon refuse to stock Random House books because it is a competitor? I suspect not.

But for all the fun, this is a pivotal moment for the industry. It is also a hugely welcome moment of movement in the rather breathless mood of phony war there has been so far this year in the UK. This is an extraordinary moment not just because of the comparative sizes of the Wylie Agency and Random House: it is not so much David v Goliath as elephant v mouse. The really astonishing thing is the mouse could win.

So, sorry Peter, but Andrew Wylie’s clients would do well to hold tight for now.

Not just Random House, but every publishing conglomerate’s refusal to negotiate sensibly over e-book royalties over the last few years was inevitably going to lead to this kind of bad blood. The awful question for Random House is will big brand authors be able to maintain their advances and increase earnings by holding on to e-book rights while having their paper books published by more medium sized publishing houses that will be grateful to have them?

If the answer is yes then the current publishing model is bust for good and no amount of sabre rattling by Random House is going to alter that. They would instead be far wiser to come to the table with constructive proposals, like escalator clauses similar to those they offer for traditional volume rights and the possibility of having different rates for different authors. In other words the type of negotiated deal they offer for all the other rights they seek to acquire.

Even the most entrenched opponents of the imposed 25% e-book royalty, and Sheil Land is certainly one of them, still retain an enormous amount of goodwill towards publishers who have been trading partners for decades. There is a very real recognition of a shared passion for books that is far from apparent in the giant technology firms.

But this goodwill goes hand in hand with a determination to negotiate a fair share of revenue between author and publisher.

The question Random House will be asking themselves is how long do they intend to hold out for an e-book rate that is contested by the Society of Authors and those agencies with the will to fight for a more equitable rate for their clients.