Odyssean Wylie

Thomas Jones · Wylie v. Random House

What to make of last week's move by the agent Andrew Wylie to cut out the middle men – not the old middle men, literary agents, but the new middle men, publishers – and publish e-books himself as Odyssey Editions ('wily Odysseus', geddit?), sold exclusively through Amazon?

Random House responded by announcing it would do no more deals with the agency, and other publishers – Macmillan, HarperCollins – joined in the criticism, though (so far) they've stopped short of refusing to do any new business with Wylie. Penguin isn't fussed though: or if it is, it's doing a good job of pretending not to be.

 Boyd Tonkin in the Independent argued that the whole thing is a cunning – and possibly already successful – ruse to get publishers to give writers higher royalties on digitial editions.

The Authors' Guild of America likes the idea of writers being paid more for e-books, but isn't happy about Amazon getting its exclusive hands on the Odyssey list. Waterstone's unsurprisingly doesn't like that either, nor does the American Booksellers Association, and it's possibly what's making the publishers most furious – just when they thought they might at last be gaining the upper hand with the online behemoth.

On Twitter meanwhile, Evil Agent Wylie ( is doing satirical comic book battle with Captain Random House ('True Fact: to access EvilWylie's Odyssey Editions on your Kindle, you must insert your firstborn child into the USB port').

But where do readers stand in all this? Everyone in the trade is insisting that whatever's most profitable for them is also best for us. Funny that. Anyway, if you want to read Lolita, Midnight's Children or Invisible Man as an e-book, you can order a new, 'third-generation' Kindle from for delivery next month. If you don't want to wait that long, you can get a paper version from the London Review Bookshop right now. They sell cake there too, which is more than you can say for Wylie, Amazon or Random House.


  • 29 July 2010 at 3:41pm
    Vance Maverick says:
    Through US Amazon, you can certainly get cake. The virtues of a physical bookstore lie elsewhere, I think.

  • 29 July 2010 at 3:47pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    Why should we care about publishers anymore? They're all owned by Bertelsmann or Random House.

    I'd never buy a Kindle, though. I like books.

  • 29 July 2010 at 9:27pm
    Oliver Rivers says:
    Jason Epstein has been saying for ages that something like this was going to happen.

    The reasons why are repeated ad nauseam in MBA strategy classes on both side of the Atlantic: publishers owed their dominant position to the fact that they undertook a set of activities--printing, distributing, and marketing books--which were fiddly, irksome, and where there were economies of scale. Those are conditions which favour large incumbents.

    Thanks to the wonders of the internet, of which the most important here are probably the fact that e-publishing requires no investment in inventory and e-distribution is a zero-cost activity, those advantages are melting away, and the publishers' business model with them.

    Everyone knows this. The more pressing question is what David Foster Wallace more-or-less called the tide of shit problem. Wylie's making money off established authors. Who's going to do the job of picking the next Waugh or Nabakov if publishers disappear?

    For alongside those fiddly, irksome, ink-smeared activities, publishers did something else, namely picking books worth publishing. They acted as gatekeepers. In a world where it's costless to publish, and costless to recommend, and where anyone could be an author, or a publisher, all the crap that was previously filtered out by publishers is now abundantly, unavoidably, overwhelmingly available. In that world, how do you sort the pearls from the ordure?

  • 29 July 2010 at 10:31pm
    Alex Abramovich says:
    Actually, Bertelsmann owns Random House.

    • 30 July 2010 at 10:46am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Alex Abramovich
      Yes, I remembered that afterwards.

  • 30 July 2010 at 11:32am
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    Publishers did something else, namely picking books worth publishing.

    Also, not picking them.

    They acted as gatekeepers. How do you sort the pearls from the ordure?

    Read the LRB.

  • 30 July 2010 at 9:22pm
    alex says:
    If you serve cakes as well as selling books, you should publish the LRC to complement the LRB.

    • 31 July 2010 at 9:55am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ alex
      Not to mention the B&CRL.

  • 31 July 2010 at 7:54am
    simonpawley says:
    A situation in which Amazon have exclusive rights to sell certain ebooks in a format that can only be viewed on their own ebook reader cannot continue long-term. The need for some kind of copy protection is reasonable (although it is ineffective - thousands and thousands of pirated ebooks can be downloaded for free using file-sharing).
    Sooner or later, I think that Amazon will come to the conclusion that sales growth is inhibited by locking out owners of other ebook readers. I can see this happening sooner, because there is a broad consensus that the Kindle is inferior to other devices, particularly the Nook.

    There is still a role for somebody to "sort the pearls from the ordure" (and not only reviewers) in my view. But it seems reasonable that here, the roles of agents and publishers might merge in to one. Publishers might have to be more willing to assess manuscripts themselves, rather than relying so much on agents to bring quality to them. And on the other hand, an agency with the resources to handle proofing, typesetting and the rest of it (still important in the digital age!) may be able to publish on their own. I think recognizable and reliable brands that readers trust to produce quality will remain important as the volume of books published continues to increase, however. There are too many books being reviewed here and there to pay attention to them all, so my attention is drawn more to those published by publishers who I know publish material to my taste of a consistently high quality.

    I've spent almost a year abroad, doing all my English-language reading on my laptop. I miss printed books more than I expected, and am now keener to get to a well-stocked library than to buy an ebook reader.

    • 31 July 2010 at 10:41am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ simonpawley
      I agree that the Kindle won't last, for the reason you give.

      I'm no expert, but aren't there parallels with the music business? Publishers equal record companies and Amazon equals I-tunes. Publishers will be gone soon, because there'll be little need for the work to be printed and distributed. All this other stuff about them sorting the wheat from the chaff was just a bi-product of their business function. Books will be read on the internet as soon as there's equipment as usable for reading as there is for listening, and the good books will be copied and distributed by people who like them. I don't see any role for agents, either; the middle men (Amazon & I-tunes) can just sell everything that's produced. As for artists & writers making money from their work, there was never a good system for this in the past and there's no reason to think things will get worse for anyone except Madonna & Martin Amis -- perhaps the money will be spread out a bit further.

  • 2 August 2010 at 9:18am
    RussellJames says:
    Publishers think the secret to success is high volume and low low prices. (It worked for supermarkets, so ...) UK publishers' inability to grasp the significance (and to profit from) electronic publishing is just another step on the downward path they began when they gleefully threw out the Net Book Agreement. As most book-lovers could tell them, paper is better than a screen. And, when a book-lover decides what to buy next, a publisher's reputation still counts. But for how much longer?

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