Boyd Tonkin: Wylie's proposition looks full of holes. Does he care? I doubt it

Tuesday 27 July 2010 00:00 BST

In Homer's epic, Odysseus is a cunning trickster who has a knack of duping monsters and outwitting giants. They huff and puff, but he always comes out ahead. In the few days since news emerged that super-agent Andrew Wylie is to bypass publishers with his own bespoke list of "Odyssey Editions" e-books, the Homeric parallel has held.

How dare "the Jackal" intrude on our patch, the corporate titans have fumed. Hugely profitable international conglomerates who plan to pay as small a royalty as possible to authors for digital editions of books to which they own the rights have shrieked in horror at the very idea that, in the age of electronic reading, writers and their estates might deserve a more generous deal. Random House has had a fit of the vapours and refused to deal with Wylie. HarperCollins has thrown up its hands in indignation. Macmillan is "appalled" that Wylie should have struck a deal with Amazon alone.

The usual suspects, with the usual bluster. But what happened yesterday? John Makinson, chief executive of Penguin – the group with most titles affected by the Wylie move – noted that a small agent-led e-book imprint was "not a cosmic issue". Then his ultimate boss Marjorie Scardino, CEO of Pearsons which owns Penguin, announced very healthy results for the group's publishing arm. What else did she say? That publishers should offer better terms to authors for e-books and that "we will see a rise in royalty rates". Jackal 1; corporate suits 0. Talk about a quick kill.

Wylie aims to provoke, and to annoy. He has done both. In truth, the Odyssey Editions proposition looks full of holes: from legal doubts about whether he really has unassigned electronic rights, to the cost of designing, promoting and selling the e-books. With no help from publishers, Wylie has to create every aspect of his electronic imprint. That will wipe out much of the cost saving that should allow authors to receive a more ample royalty deal when a digital edition simply replicates a printed one.

Does he care? I doubt it. He has scored already. The insulting offers for digital rights made to many authors by the trade-publishing giants have come into the spotlight. Wylie-Odysseus has called their bluff. He will sail away to the next venture while they nurse their injured pride.

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