Wylie in Digi-Land: Does it make sense?

Wylie in Digi-Land: Does it make sense?

The most provocative moment this month, from my point of view (and these are my personal views, not those of the company for which I work), is what we may as well come to refer to as the ‘Wylie Moment’. Wylie stated in an interview with Harvard Magazine, his agency’s negotiations with publishers on e-books were currently on hold across the board. “We will take our 700 clients, see what rights are not allocated to publishers, and establish a company on their behalf to license those e-book rights directly to someone like Google, Amazon.com or Apple. It would be another business, set up on parallel tracks to the front list book business,” Wylie said.   And sure enough, the launch of Odyssey Editions was announced yesterday.

Some agents have been thinking along the same lines, but Wylie is the first to have said it aloud and done something about it. So the ‘Wylie Moment’ is an interesting one which itself argues for publishers to be publishers, but for agents to be publishers as well and suggests (my least favourite word in Digi-Land) “disintermediation” is taken seriously. I heard this word in March and thought it might be a joke, but it isn’t. People actually use it. Canongate’s Dan Franklin usefully defined it to me in a tweet as “cutting out the middle man. Often publisher between author and retailer. But really long hand for an agency going direct to market.” It has come to this: the old ‘middle man’ (the agent) is no longer the ‘middle man’: an agent can be a publisher, one who enables a writer to reach the consumer direct. The publisher and the bookseller are now the ‘middle men’. And we all know, there are those who think a writer can do without an agent and write and self-publish in Digi-Land. Part of the reason for this is the royalty authors are offered by publishers for e-rights - 25% is still perceived to be low.

Agents have been told they have to be at that level because so much is being invested in digital publishing.  The percentages that follow cannot be scientific, but one editor I spoke to thought that 80% of senior executive publishers’ time is taken up thinking about digi-futures when at best digi-publishing currently provides at best 5% of current sales. Large conglomerates have digi-departments with clever digi-staff who are probably paid marvellously large digi-salaries and yet, given there are no real financial returns at the moment, they are vast digi-overheads, and have not really explained what they are for to most authors or their agents. All this at a time when the economy has been tanking, books sales dropping and shops disappearing. Those responsible for 90% of actual sales are having to cut back their lists, reduce real advances. It’s all a bit Alice in Wonderland, given that at the moment digi-folk are responsible for, perhaps, such small digi-income. (And yes, I realize, 5% is going to become 15% in three years - but the people who are going to make most of that money are those who make the devices, not the writers who want to be read on them).

It seems to me that the 95% of the non-digital market is being left to slope off a cliff, as the remaining chains still seem vaguely lacklustre in their ability to sell as wide a variety of titles as they did, say, fifteen years ago. Publishers are welcoming Richard & Judy back into the frame, expected to pay £25,000 per chosen title and continue to get knee-capped for cash by the chains on 3 for 2s, and other promotions. Authors’ royalties have been depleted because of high discounts even though a few of them have sold more copies. The world when an author was paid an advance for sales actually earned seems further and further away. Digi-Land offers most writers 25% net receipts on sales of, ahem - well: has anyone been really open about e-book sales? Or costs? Or publishing strategy? Digi-Land is dependent on devices, where content is queen or knave, and what Andrew Wylie suggested is that agencies could play the odd king, or even an ace.

The Wylie interview ended with provocative simplicity (even if he had a stab at the agency who look after Lewis Carroll) and some weirdly useful anachronicity:

“If Lewis Carroll and his estate had properly protected his rights, then global vacationers would be headed to Wonderland instead of Disney World and they’d have a more meaningful vacation experience, because Lewis Carroll is more interesting than Walt Disney. And if you could capture the value of Shakespeare, monetize and preserve it, then Microsoft and Google would be subsidiaries of the Royal Shakespeare Company. That’s the way I want to organize the world.”

Traditional publishers don’t yet hold all the cards in the digital future, let alone those aces and kings, and it won’t seem surprising if the new format creates new digital publishers, as happened with Allen Lane’s paperback - as I suggested in my last post. I will not be surprised if companies emerge here that will look to acquire digital rights in backlist titles just as Open Road is doing in the US - you can equate them with the paperback houses of 50, 25 years ago. Perhaps publishers will sublicense digital rights to these new publishers who bring knowledge of how to publish in the digital environment. Publishers could contract with others who have more to offer in presenting an author’s work in these new spheres and slowly, gradually, publishing would be spending less on making nothing now.  In a decade or so, they could ‘go vertical’, as we say these days. Hachette could buy companies like Zolmo - who made the Jamie Oliver app - in the way Penguin bought Hamish Hamilton whenever they did. Then again, a literary agency might well be in a position to snaffle up the likes of Open Book, or Zolmo.

Before he went on holiday at Easter, Peter Collingridge said to me in a tired, slightly de-mob happy way that there “too much fart and not enough poo”, the best description of current UK digital publishing I’ve heard. And Andrew Wylie may well be the first agent to poo - rather than fart - in this debate.