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Agent publishes 20 'modern classics' on Kindle, cutting out publishers

Wylie Agency partners with Amazon to publish 20 Kindle titles from influential literary figures. The deal runs for two years and points to a sign of things to come in the publishing industry.

The new Kindle version of Mailer's classic. Screenshot by David Carnoy/CNET

The Wylie Agency, which represents authors such as Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and John Updike, is publishing 20 books through its new Odyssey Editions imprint and making them available for sale exclusively in's Kindle Store for $9.99.

Andrew Wylie, the founder and head of the agency, has been locked in a battle with publishing houses over the digital rights to a number of modern classics and "backlist" titles. His new move makes a big statement to big-name publishers, which have been shut out of a potentially lucrative revenue stream. Because digital rights have only been included in more-recent book publishing contracts, the electronic rights to a multitude of famous books are held by authors.

Deals, such as this one with Wylie, have the potential of netting authors or their estates much higher royalties than if they'd signed an e-book deal with a major publishing house.

Currently, the standard cut offered by publishing houses to authors is 25 percent of the net price of an e-book. Amazon offers a 70 percent cut to self-published authors of Kindle titles, so you get an idea how the numbers likely skew much better for authors in the deal struck by Wylie.

Amazon said this is the first time any of the titles--which include Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead," Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint," and Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man"--have been available electronically. All of the books are exclusive to the Kindle Store for two years. Other titles include Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children," Oliver Sacks' "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," John Cheever's "The Stories of John Cheever" and four novels from John Updike's Rabbit series.

Wylie's move points to a future in which small, upstart micro-publishing houses like Wylie's Odyssey Editions can go toe-to-toe with larger publishing houses in the digital arena and represent the new paradigm for publishing. Other publishing start-ups are launching with the similar goal of bringing out other modern classics, including Open Road Integrated Media led by veteran publishing executive Jane Friedman, who has raised $7 million to back the venture.

In a New York Times article, Wylie suggests that he could publish authors he doesn't work with directly. "We're perfectly happy to entertain the idea of publishing authors we don't represent," he said.

Of course, the rub in all this is that the titles cost $9.99.

On Amazon, you can pick up a new paperback of "Portnoy's Complaint," for example, for around $10. Used paperbacks are available for much less. The reality is that these e-books should cost $4.99 or less, and it seems that customers will take issue with downloading a $9.99 e-book with a spartan cover image that looks so lame. (Even free, public-domain e-books have better covers.) We'll see if some new artwork appears or whether the cover art is embroiled in a rights issue of its own.