Wylie sounds warning for self publishers
One of the most powerful figures in publishing, literary agent Andrew Wylie, has warned that writers who go direct to Amazon and other eBook publishers could drive themselves and others out of business.
In an interview for the BBC Radio 4 programme, "The World at One", the man known as 'The Jackal' for his fierce business style said that unless traditional publishers seized the initiative, the move to online books could be fatal not just for writers, but for the whole business.
"Since I became involved in the publishing world in 1980, the industry has always allowed itself to be lead by the retail end. It's moved now to digital distribution and publishers have been trying to reconcile themselves with the demands of the digital distributors. I think if they allow the digital distributors to set the music, then the dance will become fatal."
"I think that the distributors have had too much power for too long. I think the publishers need to stand firm in face of that power. Really, the question now is whether that will happen or not."
One of the biggest challenges in recent years has been a move by online retail giant Amazon into traditional areas of publishing. It recently announced a range of imprints and has been quietly staffing up its own publishing division. Many new writers frustrated by a risk-averse publishing industry have turned to self-publishing, cutting out agents and publishers. Wylie feels such a move to be short-sighted.
"The demise of the music industry came about because the industry allowed itself to transfer the 30% of profitability that existed in that industry to the digital device holder, Apple. Publishers have now replicated that by transferring 30%, for no apparent reason, to digital device holders Amazon, Apple and others.
"I see no harm in transferring 30% of publishing profits to Amazon, if Amazon would then like to transfer 30% of Kindle sales to the publishing industry in exchange. They have a device, it can't be sold without the publishing content."
Amazon offers self-publishing authors up to 100% of their net price - or a 70% royalty - as opposed to the 25% of net on offer through a traditional publishing contract.
Wylie recently announced his own plans to cut publishers out of contracts for the electronic editions of his author's books, preferring to deal directly with the likes of Amazon. Despite this, he remains convinced that all writers need someone prepared to secure their long-term prospects.
"Inevitably digital device holders will lower the retail price to the point where it's pointless for authors to spend their time writing. What is really needed is for publishers to raise the digital royalty to 50% and create a viable alternative to what is being offered by Amazon and Apple and others."
There remains the argument that by opening up publishing to everyone, readers are getting greater choice.
"It could be a good thing, or as happened in the music industry, it could be a bad thing. If you allow the digital distribution piece to take over the entire industry, what it wants is volume and low price. It's prepared to lower the price to 99 cents to achieve the volume at that point. An author working for ten cents a copy is not a supportable economic arrangement.
"The music industry ended up needing to go on the road to support the musicians who were part of it. It would be a fairly dire situation if writers had to give public readings in order to support themselves."
Wylie represents some of the most famous authors writing today including Philip Roth, Salmon Rushdie and Martin Amis.