While we’re on the topic of the publishing industry, my insider contact has tipped me off to the latest delicious controversy.  Literary superagent Andrew Wylie is taking his clients’ backlist titles and selling the e-book rights directly and exclusively to Amazon.

Wow. I wonder what that means?

Let’s take a step back.  Suppose you are, say, John Updike, and Random House wants to publish your book.  The company gives you an advance and then pays you royalties based on sales and all things are right in the world.

But now, technology marches on and the next thing you know the Kindle and the iPad emerge, and all of a sudden there is a potentially new version of your product, the e-book.  What should we make of this? Does your contract with Random House extend to the right to publish the e-book? Or do they have exclusive rights to  Or do you maintain that right?

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that Random House began explicitly covering e-books in its contracts, and Wylie seems to think that his clients maintain e-book rights.  The courts seem to agree.

It’s not clear from the article that that is the biggest problem.  According to the New York Times blurb:

John Sargent, chief executive of Macmillan, posted a response on his company’s Web site, criticizing Mr. Wylie for cutting an exclusive deal with Amazon for the 20 e-books, which in addition to Mr. Nabokov’s “Lolita” and Mr. Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” include Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and John Updike’s “Rabbit” books.

“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,” Mr. Sargent said.

Some of you may remember Mr. Sargent who locked horns with Amazon not too long ago over  rights to set prices for e-book prices.  The effect of that was for Macmilian and others to wrestle control from Amazon and raise consumer prices for many e-book titles.  Certainly, at least in terms of a partial equilibrium model, the higher prices aren’t consistent with “as widely available as possible.”

It’s probably more complicated than that, though.