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Could Andrew 'The Jackal' Wylie be the death of publishing?

Cahal Milmo reports on a deal between bookselling giant Amazon and one of the literary world's most ruthless agents

Until recently, Andrew Wylie, the doyen of literary agents, whose feral pursuit of clients and their interests earned him the nickname "The Jackal", had little time for e-book readers. When asked about his ownership of one of the gadgets hailed as the future of publishing, he said: "I used it for an hour and a half and put it in the closet."

But whatever his personal feelings, Wylie has decided to embrace the brave new world of virtual books – sparking a bitter backlash from some of the world's largest publishers and prompting talk of nothing less than the demise of 500 years of publishing history. The reason? A deal between the American agent and Amazon to sell electronic versions of works by an array of literary superstars.

Under a new digital-only imprint, Odyssey Editions, Wylie has arranged to sell 20 contemporary classics such as Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Martin Amis's London Fields exclusively through – and in so doing cut the recession-hit original publishers of those books out of a potentially lucrative source of income.

The outbreak of bad-tempered bickering in the normally outwardly sedate world of books has seen Wylie's latest initiative variously described as an "extraordinarily bad deal" and "very disappointing".

Wylie, whose roster of 700 authors from Chinua Achebe to Norman Mailer makes him one of global publishing's most influential powerbrokers, is exploiting a gap in contracts signed by writers long before e-books had been thought of, which leaves them free to negotiate separate deals to sell electronic versions.

With the sort of steely will and eye for the bottom line that helped him wrest authors such as Amis from their previous agents with six-figure deals, Wylie presented the initiative as an opening up of modern masterpieces by the likes of William Burroughs and Vladimir Nabokov to an electronic audience.

In a statement, he said: "As the market for e-books grows, it will be important for readers to have access in e-book format to the contemporary literature the world has to offer. This publishing programme is designed to address that need, and to help e-book readers build a digital library of contemporary literature."

The move has been met with a stern response from leading publishers. At a time when UK book sales have fallen by 73m copies and revenues are stagnant at £3bn, any loss of income from so-called "back list" titles by established authors who need little promotion is a bitter blow.

Victoria Barnsley, chief executive of HarperCollins in Britain, which has printing rights to three of the works on the Odyssey list, said: "HarperCollins will vigorously protect its rights and our authors' interests by ensuring their work gets to the broadest possible audience. The only winners in this are Amazon."

Random House, which last week announced it was severing ties with the Wylie Agency by halting any new deals with the organisation over the digital deal, told The Independent it was "in negotiations" with Amazon after it sent a letter to the internet retailer formally disputing its right to "legally sell these titles".

In a statement, Random House said that Wylie's decision to sign an exclusive deal with Amazon "undermines our longstanding commitments to and investments in our authors, and it establishes this agency as our direct competitor".

The literary stand-off is just the latest skirmish in an increasingly frantic turf war between authors and agents on one side and publishers on the other for a slice of the growing e-books market. The battle intensified last December when Markus Dohle, German chief executive of Random House, sent a letter to literary agents declaring that the publisher's older contracts still gave it "the exclusive right to publish in electronic book publishing formats".

Sales of digital books rose by 8.5 per cent in America in the first five months of this year (a figure that will increase further with the launch of Apple's iPad) and revenue from digital products increased by 20 per cent in Britain to £150m in 2009.

Although e-books account for just six per cent of the consumer book market in the United States and mainstream titles create revenues of just £5m in Britain, where 80 per cent of digital sales are in academic and professional sector, Amazon claimed last week that the format has reached a "tipping point" with sales of titles in America for its Kindle e-reader outstripping hardbacks for the first time.

Many e-book sales are at heavily discounted rates (some titles sell for as little as 75p) but a key source of friction between authors and publishers is the royalties. Agents and writers argue the non-existent printing and negligible distribution costs of e-books mean royalties should be at least 25 per cent and up to 50 per cent, while many publishers are reluctant to shift much beyond 20.

For the moment at least, it seems the momentum is with authors. Stephen King released his latest novel, Blockade Billy, as an e-book a month before its appearance as a hardback, while popular Japanese author Ryu Murakami is to publish his next novel on the iPad.

Others, however, warn the format remains unproven as a means of widening book sales. Kate Pool, deputy secretary general of the Society of Authors, said: "Most authors would be pleased with anything that broadens their readership. But the fact that something is published in a new medium doesn't mean that people are going to be queuing up to buy it. Nobody yet knows how the digital market is going to work out."

Having set his electronic cat among the literary pigeons, the eminence grise of publishing was yesterday maintaining a dignified silence. A spokesman for Mr Wylie said: "He is out of town on vacation for the rest of the month."

Wylie's digital works

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Winner of the National Book Award in 1953, Ellison's blistering and impassioned masterpiece about an anonymous Afro-American man who considers himself socially invisible was described as "a book of the very first order" by Saul Bellow when it was published. "One is accustomed to expect excellent novels about boys, but a modern novel about men is exceedingly rare," Bellow added.

The Naked And The Dead, Norman Mailer

Set on an island in the South Pacific during the Second World War, the novel secured Norman Mailer's position, at the age of 25, as one of the great writers of the 20th century. When it was published in 1948, a review in The New York Times described it as "undoubtedly the most ambitious novel to be written about the recent conflict, it is also the most ruthlessly honest and in scope and integrity compares favorably with the best that followed World War I."

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

Causing an instant sensation upon its publication in 1955, the novel told the story of Humbert Humbert, a literary scholar who becomes overcome with lust for his 12-year-old stepdaughter. The British novelist Graham Greene described it as the "greatest book of the year", but its subject matter meant that it was soon banned in the UK. In 1958 it was published in the US, and its notoriety ensured it was an instant success, selling more than 100,000 copies in three weeks.

Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

The novel, which tells the story of Saleem Sinai, who is born at the exact moment when India wins its independence following years of British colonial rule, won the Booker Prize when it was published in 1981 and propelled Rushdie to international fame. The New York Review of Books described it as "one of the most important books to come out of the English-speaking world in this generation."

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson

Journalist Raoul Duke and his attorney, Dr Gonzo, arrive in 1970s Las Vegas to report on the Mint 400 motorcycle race. A few pages on, they are embroiled in a full-on drug orgy in search of the American Dream. Critical reactions to the book were mixed, but one reviewer in The New York Times described it as "a custom-crafted study of paranoia, a spew from the 1960s and – in all its hysteria, insolence, insult and rot – a desperate and important book, a wired nightmare, the funniest piece of American prose." The author Tom Wolfe called it "a scorching epochal sensation. There are only two adjectives writers care about any more...'brilliant' and 'outrageous'... and Hunter Thompson has a freehold on both of them."

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