ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, some recent developments illustrate just how ugly the fight may be.
LYNN NEARY: There was a time when e-books seemed to be the future in publishing. That time is over. The future is now.
TOM ALLEN: Well, certainly, the e-book market is exploding.
NEARY: All this is taking place as issues, such as who owns the rights to books published before the advent of digital publishing, remain unresolved. Back then, says Allen, publishers didn't explicitly include e-books in their contracts with authors.
ALLEN: Now, they're engaged in disputes over whether the language in the contracts covers e-books or not.
NEARY: That question led to a still-simmering dispute between one of the major publishing houses, Random House, and the powerful Wylie literary agency. Wylie established its own publishing brand and signed an exclusive deal with Amazon to sell digital versions of some bestsellers, like "Lolita" and "The Invisible Man," that came out before electronic books existed.
SCOTT TUROW: When an agent becomes a publisher, that is sort of contradictory.
NEARY: That, says Turow, hurts no one but the writers.
TUROW: I think the most amusing part of it is that we're going to beat up on those poor authors who have Andrew Wylie as their agent, but we're not going to take anything out on the behemoth, Amazon. In other words, we're going to, you know, we're going to walk down the beach and kick some sand in the face of the 99-pound weakling.
NEARY: But Jane Friedman, former CEO of HarperCollins who co-founded the digital publishing company Open Road, says the issue of royalties can't be resolved until the question of who owns the rights to older books is settled.
JANE FRIEDMAN: I think this is probably the most important issue in this whole new world of digital publishing.
NEARY: Friedman says her company believes that digital rights belong to the writer or their estate unless a contract explicitly states otherwise. And, she says, they want the rights question resolved before they take on a book.
FRIEDMAN: In other words, if someone comes to us and says there is some confusion in a contract, we won't even talk to that representative. We will only talk where the content provider says we have the rights.
NEARY: One other question raised by the standoff between Random House and the Wylie Agency: If a literary agency can become a publisher, then what's to stop Amazon or Apple or Google, or any other digital behemoth, as Scott Turow calls them, from doing the same thing?
TUROW: The concern is that they will step up, take the cream and make it impossible for other publishers to survive, because they're going to take the titles where, you know, the most money is going to be made.
NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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