I’ve been fascinated by the announcement from Amazon and the Wylie Agency. For those not following the story, Wylie published 20 novels on Kindle as an exclusive deal through Odyssey Editions, a new imprint created by the literary agency. Calling it “E-Book Editions of Modern Classics,” Wylie is bypassing not only traditional publishers, but also Apple, Barnes & Noble, and a slew of the other usual suspects. And their list does indeed include some modern classics, such as Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer.
I won’t dwell on the details of the arrangement, that has been covered exhaustively elsewhere. (I’ve given links to some of the better reports below.) But one thing stood out for me: the covers. When I saw them I immediately thought of another publisher, one at a similar stage in publishing history when a new format was first catching on: the quality paperback.
Penguin originally also launched with stripped down covers that featured little more than the author’s name and the title of the book. As detailed in this fantastic article from Smithsonian, Penguin used different colors to denote fiction, biography, mystery, etc. but other than that the covers are essentially blank. These stripped down covers branded the publisher much more than any specific author or book. Similarly, it seems Odyssey itself is the brand for the 20 ebooks it just released. While no plans to publish new titles have been announced, one can see this minimalist cover conveying some of the trappings of these first 20 titles to any new titles it may publish. Instant classic anyone?
My hunch is that Wylie studied the Penguin model, and is imitating it. Other similarities between the two ventures are apparent. They are both new imprints that launched during a down time in the economy. Each chose a limited number titles and placed a premium on quality fiction. The titles they initially published were all previously available in other formats, all that’s new is the packaging and the reduced price it brings.
The one major difference: Penguin needed to sell 17,000 copies of a book to break even. Since launching last Thursday, Odyssey Editions is most likely already profitable.
Of course, the cover design for Odyssey Editions has to be a lot more versatile than that for early Penguin. Though they look fine on the Odyssey site and Kindle itself, on the Amazon site they’re far too small to be legible. Also, the Kindle logo covers the Odyssey logo in the lower right corner of each cover. Is a slight redesign is forthcoming?
It’s surprising that more publishers haven’t gone this route of clearly branding their titles as ebooks continue to rise in prominence. How else can publishers distinguish what they bring to the free-for-all ebook market?
Notable coverage of the latest ebook kerfuffle:
- Mike Shatzkin at The Shatzkin Files: It isn’t wise to draw lines in the sand that ultimately can’t be defended
- Jason Pinter at Huffington Post: Digital Shockwave: How Millions of Dollars and the Survival of the Publishing Industry are at Stake
- Kassia Krozser at Booksquare: Today in Publishing: A Skirmish
- Craig Morgan Teicher at Publisher’s Weekly: Amazon + Wylie: Reactions from Around the Web (good list of articles from all the usual suspects of the traditional media)
- Craig Lambert at Harvard Magazine: Fifteen Percent of Immortality (great profile of Wylie)