John Updike stayed with one publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, for half a century. He didn't have an agent and didn't worry about contracts because he regarded the people at Knopf as friends and colleagues. And he didn't care much for the Internet and its "virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines."
But the rise of e-books and the gap between what agents and authors want to receive and publishers are willing to give has led to the kinds of changes and disruptions Updike worried about. A year and a half after his death, Updike and some celebrated peers have entered the digital age and, in part, separated from their publishing homes.
Updike's four "Rabbit" novels are among 20 famous works coming out for the first time in electronic form, not through Knopf or another traditional publisher, but through Odyssey Editions, founded by the literary agency of Andrew Wylie, whose clients include the estates of Updike and Saul Bellow and such living authors as Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth. The books will be sold exclusively through Amazon.com, the leading e-book seller.
"As the market for e-books grows, it will be important for readers to have access in e-book format to the best contemporary literature the world has to offer," Wylie said in a statement Thursday. "This publishing program is designed to address that need, and to help e-book readers build a digital library of classic contemporary literature."
Financial terms were not disclosed, but author royalties surely will be higher than the 25 percent usually offered by publishers for e-books. Agents and authors, citing the low production costs of electronic texts, have been asking for 50 percent. With the Internet enabling virtually anyone with a computer to become a publisher, Wylie had long threatened to break the impasse by releasing the books himself.
"I think he's a visionary," said literary agent Ira Silverberg of Sterling Lord Literistic Inc. "Many of us have talked about starting such an endeavor and Andrew, of course, put his incredible business acumen to work far earlier than the rest."
"As e-book sales continue to grow and platform and distribution options continue to evolve, the role of the agent as a provider of full service to their clients is going to have to evolve with it," said Steve Ross, a former publisher and now an agent with Abrams Artists Agency.
Odyssey Editions is the latest e-company to attract authors by offering higher royalties. Open Road Integrated Media, co-founded last year by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, publishes e-books of works by William Styron and Iris Murdoch. RosettaBooks is releasing the e-version of Steven Covey's best-selling "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People."
Wylie's announcement continues a tense and occasionally litigious territorial dispute between publishers and authors and agents: Control of rights to older books published before the e-book era. Many of the Odyssey books were first released by Knopf or by other divisions of Random House Inc. Spokesman Stuart Applebaum of Random House said the company was "disappointed by Mr. Wylie's actions, which we dispute."
"Last night, we sent a letter to Amazon disputing their rights to legally sell these titles, which are subject to active Random House publishing agreements. Upon assessing our business options, we will be taking appropriate action," Applebaum said Wednesday.
Other works from Odyssey include Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" and Rushdie's "Midnight's Children." Odyssey also is publishing an e-edition of John Cheever's collected stories. Cheever's daughter, author Susan Cheever, wonders if he would have approved.
"I think he would have been torn," she says of her late father. "He was a tremendously loyal man who famously stayed at The New Yorker even when they weren't doing right by him. He had very good feelings about Knopf and Random house, with good reason.
"But in principle, I'm all for writers getting the largest percentage possible for their work."