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EBooks to Save Industry. But Whose?


Today, an email newsletter from Publisher's Marketplace features an item on the brewing "eRights battle." It's the latest salvo in a burgeoning cold war between agents and publishers that surfaced over the weekend.

The New York Times noted that Random House's CEO, Markus Dohle, recently wrote a letter to many literary agents citing language in older contracts that he believes give his company "exclusive right to publish in electronic book publishing formats."

The jury is still out over whether or not e-books (or Sarah Palin) will save the beleaguered publishing business. But one thing seems increasingly clear: The major book publishing houses sure think they could. How else to explain the newly amped-up efforts by the world's largest publisher, Random House, to secure e-book rights for works by writers like William Styron, whose contract with the company was inked long before such technology was even a twinkle in Jeff Bezos' laughing eyes?

Jane Friedman, the erstwhile chief executive of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide, would like to politely disagree. Friedman believes that e-rights reside with the writers. Earlier this year Friedman co-founded Open Road Integrated Media, a business very much built on the electronic publication of so-called backlist titles such as Styron's Sophie's Choice. In October, Open Road said it had reached a deal with the handler's of Styron's estate (the author died in 2006 at age 81), and Saturday's Times story contained an Open Road endorsement from Styron's youngest daughter, Alexandra.

But in today's letter, Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum attempts to clarify the intent of Dohle's missive and says that Dohle's letter was "written and is put forward in the spirit of collaboration, not confrontation, with the agent community."

Well played, Applebaum!

As we reported last month, e-book are still a tiny percentage of overall book sales—in September, for example, e-book sales checked in around $90 million, while total book sales were about $1.26 billion. But sales of electronic readers such as Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Nobles' Nook continue to spike. And at least one high-powered agent thinks e-books might account for as much as 20% of book sales in 2010. So while it may be too soon to say that e-books are publishing's silver bullets, there is little doubt about what Random House, Jane Friedman and others saw in them long ago: opportunity.

Image: / CC BY 2.0

Update: Open Road has clarified their stance, that they "only make deals with parties who represent to us that they own the rights."