These are heady times for the cultural commentator. Change in the world of books is coming so thick and fast it’s hard to keep up. Scarcely have we adjusted to one innovation than up pops something new to change the picture yet again.
Take the case of ebooks. For about five years, perhaps longer, they were little more than a gleam in the eye. On the wilder shores of futuristic literary speculation, there were more or less abstract, and largely theoretical, discussions about what shape the digitised text would take once the new technology had become commercially viable.
Then came the Kindle – the market leader, though not necessarily the best, of the e-readers. That was followed by Amazon’s determination to use the Kindle to broaden and strengthen its role in the literary marketplace. The combination of the new technology plus a commercially aggressive strategy soon gained traction.
Last year saw the first signs of a defection from traditional book publishing towards e-publishing, with the decision of business writer Stephen Covey to bypass his regular publisher and sign an ebook contract elsewhere. Coincidentally, Random House unilaterally decided to claim ebook rights in its backlist authors, a move that amounted to a declaration of war on the US agenting establishment.
The Random House move took place barely six months ago. At the time, I predicted it could be a milestone. I was wrong. The Random House move, plus a number of smaller tipping points, has started a revolution whose outcome no one can possibly be sure of. One thing is certain: we are in the middle of an earthquake.
Sure enough, last week the news came that Andrew Wylie, the celebrated and/or infamous “Jackal”, is going to sell ebook editions of 20 modern classics (including Norman Mailer and Martin Amis) through a new e-imprint named Odyssey Editions.
Wylie’s move is highly contentious (as usual with him) and highly significant. No one thinks more clearly about what’s best for himself and his authors, and where the industry is headed, than Wylie.
Yes, he’s gambling – but he’s basically backing a hunch that’s confirmed by the trend. At the moment, halfway through 2010, the contractual situation in publishing resembles the wild west. Ambitious prospectors must stake a claim, and defend it.
Wylie’s response to Random House is the literary equivalent of Pearl Harbor. The war was already raging worldwide. Like the Japanese in 1941, he has just opened a new front, with incalculable consequences.
No question: these are interesting times for the world of books.Robert McCrum’s new book, Globish, is available at all Liberty Books outlets and here.