A literary agency's decision to publish e-editions of "Lolita," "Invisible Man" and other classics and sell them exclusively through Amazon.com received a mixed response from the Authors Guild, which represents thousands of published writers.
In an e-mail sent Monday to authors, the Guild defended the Wylie Agency's right to sell e-books of older works without the publisher's permission, but also criticized excluding Amazon's competitors and worried about "serious potential conflicts of interest" when an agent becomes a publisher.
"The most obvious of these (conflicts) is the possibility of self-dealing to the detriment of the agency's client, the author," the Guild's message said. "A major agency starting a publishing company is weird, no matter how you look at it."
The Wylie Agency, where clients include the estates of Saul Bellow and John Updike and such living authors as Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie, launched a publishing house called Odyssey Editions last week, featuring e-books of 20 acclaimed contemporary works, including Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" and Updike's four "Rabbit" novels. The e-books will be available only through Amazon, an arrangement that enraged publishers and rival sellers.
"Authors should have access to all responsible vendors of e-books. Moreover, Amazon's power in the book publishing industry grows daily," the Guild says. "Few publishers have the clout to stand up to the online giant, which dominates every significant growth sector of the book industry: e-books, online new books, online used books, downloadable audio, and on-demand books."
The rapidly growing e-market has started and intensified a catalog of disputes among authors, agents, publishers and retailers.
Many of the books published by Odyssey originally were released by Random House, Inc. Publishers, notably Random House, have claimed the rights for most books from the pre-digital era, saying such contractual phrases as "in book form" or "in any and all editions" cover e-books. Authors and agents say that the rights for those works belong to them, unless the contract specifically states otherwise.
Authors and agents believe royalties for e-books should be 50 percent. Most publishers offer 25 percent, a prime cause for Wylie and other agents to seek other ways of releasing e-works.
"Large agencies have refused to sign e-rights deals for countless backlist books with traditional publishers, even though they and their clients, no doubt, see real benefits in having a single publisher handle the print and electronic rights to a book," the Guild said. Despite the differences, publishers have managed to add to their digital backlists.
"Random House continues to successfully reach agreements with hundreds of authors, author estates, and their agents," said Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum. Upcoming e-books include novels by Cormac McCarthy and Anne Tyler and the first e-edition of "The Diary of Anne Frank."
Publishers, authors, agents and booksellers all have worried about Amazon, including its preference for selling popular e-books for $9.99, far below the price for hardcovers. Several major publishers- but not Random House- have reached agreements with Apple to sell books on the iPad, for sometimes as high as $14.99.
In its e-mail alert, the Authors Guild noted that Random House announced it would conduct no new business for English-language books with the Wylie agency until the dispute was resolved, but apparently took no action against Amazon beyond sending a letter disputing its right to sell the books.
"That Random House, by far the largest trade book publisher, has retaliated against the powerful Wylie Agency but not against Amazon, which must be equally culpable in Random House's view, tells you all you need to know about where power truly lies in today's publishing industry," the Guild said.
"Random House immediately registered its concerns with Amazon over their legal right to sell the e-books in question," Applebaum said. "But it was the Wylie Agency, not a retailer, which instigated an exclusive e-bookselling arrangement for several of our authors' books, making them our direct competitor, which is unacceptable to us and to many booksellers."