Literary agency steps up battle over e-books

NEW YORK — It's war between Random House and a top literacy agency. Random House, the country's leading trade publisher, said last week it would conduct no new English-language business with the Wylie Agency, which launched an e-book line that would release works by John Updike, Salman Rushdie and other Random authors through

"The Wylie Agency's decision to sell e-books exclusively to Amazon for titles which are subject to active Random House agreements undermines our longstanding commitments to and investments in our authors," Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum said in a statement.

An assistant to agency head Andrew Wylie said he was out of the country and had no immediate comment.

The standoff is the most dramatic yet in the dispute over what agents and authors want to receive and what publishers are willing to pay for e-books. Updike's four Rabbit novels and Rushdie's Midnight's Children are among the 20 famous works coming out for the first time in electronic form, not through a traditional publisher, but through Odyssey Editions, founded by the Wylie agency.

The books will be sold exclusively through Amazon, the leading e-book seller.

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.

John Sargent, chief executive of Macmillan, a leading publisher, said he was "appalled" by Wylie's decision to sell only through Amazon.

"I understand why Amazon wants an exclusive deal with Andrew," Sargent wrote Thursday on his blog. "They have asked us too for exclusive product, as has every major retailer we deal with. This is smart retailing, and a great deal for Amazon. But it is an extraordinarily bad deal for writers, illustrators, publishers, other booksellers, and for anyone who believes that books should be as widely available as possible."

Wylie's announcement also 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, especially when contracts don't refer specifically to electric settings.

In a statement, Random House's Applebaum said the publisher sent a letter to Amazon "disputing their rights to legally sell these titles, which are subject to active Random House publishing agreements."