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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

e-book frenzy

So Borders has announced its e-book strategy, and Random House is making a land grab.

The Borders announcement fascinates me on several levels. If my distant memory serves, a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away, Borders contemplated opening Canadian stores in partership with Heather Reisman, now the CEO of their e-book partner and major Canadian book retailer Indigo. This did not come to pass because of the difficulty in finding a way to structure the deal that would pass muster with Canadian content regulations for book retailers. Or at least that's my distant memory, which may or may not be correct. And it was after this did not come to pass that Heather started to put together the Indigo retail empire in Canada.

Borders is late to the e-book game. As they were late to the internet. Late to having a modern inventory system and in-store computer system. Late and still not arrived to having a rapid supply chain. But unlike the internet business, being late here might be to Borders' benefit. I don't consider even the Kindle to be a dominant unapproachable category killer, nor any current e-book reader for that matter. When I'm content to read manuscripts on an iPod Touch, it's safe to say that the future of e-books may not even be the e-book reader. Part of it will depend on whether they do a better job of putting something good out the first time around instead of doing the bad rush job for the holidays represented by the B&N Nook. The press release has precious few details. Well, this should all be very interesting to watch play out over the next year or two. It's too bad I'll have to watch as someone with a lot on the line as it all plays out instead of as an interested rubbernecker.

The Random House letter is a lot of "yadda yadda yadda" followed by a "don't mess with us." Yes, Random House is doing all kinds of on-line thingamabobbies, Suvudu this and Library Thing that, with a free e-book here and a galley contest there, here a link, there a post, everywhere an interview (you want to sing the above to the tune of Old McDonald for your fullest enjoyment), but so is everyone else. But as with publishing itself, where the barriers to entry have come down so much that the idea of paying a Vantage Press thousands of dollars to publish a book seems stunningly quaint, the barriers to entry for doing on-line book promotion are practically non-existent. I've got clients like Jim C. Hines who do quite a bit of this kind of thing, most of it done without overwhelming assistant from his publisher's publicity people. If you have no idea what any of this is about, the Random House touting of its electronic horn sounds much more impressive than I think it really is.

As to the suggestion that Random House has e-book rights on ancient contracts that don't mention e-books, don't specify e-book royalty rates, long pre-date the existence of e-books... Um, yeah, right. I don't know if there will ever be an ultimate court case where the Supreme Court will end up having to decide. One of the biggest brouhahas previously between Random House and Rosetta Books, a company led by my one-time boss Arthur Klebanoff, ended up with an out of court settlement after some initial rulings that were not totally favorable to Random.

To me, the bottom line on this is that the major publishing houses all started to revise their boilerplates in the early 1990s to specifically cover electronic book editions. If they are so gosh darn confident that all of the older contracts covered this, why bother to go to all that effort to change your boilerplate?

Of course, this letter is a model of gentility compared to the form letter publishers send out to try and get authors to sign away after the fact on granting e-book rights or specifying e-book royalties. Which all sound the same, no matter what publisher they come from, and which should never, ever, ever be signed, because they always do things like forget to mention that adding in e-book rights without looking at the entire contract and things like the out of print clause could be the equivalent of signing away the book forever. Now why would the publisher forget to mention that in the letter?


Unknown said...

Thanks for laying this out in a way that makes sense. Publishing is like no other industry, is it?

Unknown said...

You detail a very interesting history of Borders. I've elected to make my purchases from them or Books-A-Million, because I want B&N to have competition.