Here's the right answer: the book industry, like the financial industry, should be in much better shape than it is.
A little less than three years ago, Jeff Bezos of Amazon became the human face of the much-anticipated e-book revolution with the launch of the Kindle. The Kindle's launch was big news, but big sales did not follow, and the book industry gradually realized that software, not hardware, was the key to popular acceptance of digital reading. A complex equation of factors -- format, presentation, compatibility, pricing, DRM, rights and royalties -- would have to fall into place before the book publishing industry could revolutionize itself. Last week a well-known literary agent named Andrew Wylie made a big move to slash through the confusion and establish a new approach to e-book publishing. The reaction from industry insiders was swift and severe. Andrew Wylie is now the human face of the e-book revolution.
Many of the articles linked above vilify Wylie, for one big reason: his partnership with Amazon cuts traditional book publishers completely out of the equation. Wylie's company is a literary agency -- they represent writers directly, for a standard (usually 15%) agency fee. In the new arrangement, Wylie's own newly formed company Odyssey Editions will publish books directly with Amazon, using the Kindle format (which can be read not only on a Kindle device but also on computers, iPhones, Droid phones, etc.). There are exactly two parties in this venture: the literary agent (Wylie) and the bookseller (Amazon). The publisher has no place. No Random House, no Penguin, no Macmillan, no Simon & Schuster. Just an author, a store ... and, hopefully, a reader with money to spend. That's how the new system works.
This ultra-simple arrangement works for Odyssey Editions only because these are backlist titles -- classics like Lolita, Junky, London Fields, Portnoy's Complaint and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, selected from among Wylie's awesome list of clients. Backlist titles don't need to be edited and marketed, and the Odyssey Editions formula includes no capability to develop new authors and new books. Still, it's a big threat to the status quo (Random House and Macmillan have responded aggressively). Somebody's even been running a popular fake twitter account, @EvilWylie. The furor hasn't made the evening news, but absolutely everybody in the book biz has been buzzing about it, and it's hard for non-aligned book enthusiasts to know what to think.
Some of the reactions from booksellers and publishers are over the top. The MobyLives blog, representing the indie publisher Melville House, calls Amazon "satanic" and refers with approval to a bookstore in Oxford, Mississippi that has put up a window display protesting "Wylie World". Well, we know why publishers don't like Odyssey Editions, and we know why bookstores don't like Amazon. But what should readers and book lovers think?
I can't help but find Andrew Wylie's move exciting. It doesn't hurt his image that he apparently acquired the nickname "the Jackal" years ago after stealing a high-profile client from another agent. There are undoubtedly many, many others in the publishing industry who can only wildly dream that they will someday have a nickname like "the Jackal". There are far more ostriches, aardvarks and lemmings than jackals in the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan.
I also have a soft spot for Andrew Wylie because of his background in the downtown New York City art/punk scene. He certainly has good taste in literary friends: the photo at the top of this page shows him in the early 1970s (he's the one in front, with the beret) with Patti Smith, rock writer Victor Bockris and Warhol scenester/poet Gerard Malagna. This jackal has remarkably bohemian tastes.
But the 1970s are over, the future is upon us, and the best thing Andrew Wylie has done this week is plant a big loud ringing alarm clock under the pillows of many book publishing executives. Book lovers want e-book platforms we actually like, we want industry visionaries with better literary instincts and better sense of style than clunky Jeff Bezos to lead the way, and we don't really care if the electronic reading revolution (if it ever gets here) messes up Macmillan or Random House's spreadsheets. It's "genius" executives at publishing firms like Macmillan and Random House that have made us suffer for decades with ridiculous practices like hardcover-only publishing. It's hard to believe that anything Andrew Wylie instigates will ever be more destructive to the reading experience and more insensitive to consumer desires than hardcover-only publishing.
Odyssey Editions may or may not prove to be a big deal (Penguin chief John Makinson is refreshingly blase about it), but it definitely bears close watching, and I expect I'll be posting updates about this latest wrinkle in e-book publishing soon.