The news that the Fleming estate is to cut out the book publisher Penguin with a deal to make Ian Fleming's 14 James Bond books available digitally direct to consumers shows just how fragile the current publishing structure really is.
I spoke with Corinne Turner, managing director of Ian Fleming Publications, which administers the estate some weeks ago ahead of the release of the news today, and she told me that she simply could not see a reason for the digital rights to be sold to a publisher: in this case Penguin, which holds the license to publish the books in print for a further two years.
She told me: "Penguin accepted long ago that they didn't have the digital rights. Of course they wanted to do it, but why would we. With a brand like ours, people are looking for the books anyway, so the publicity and marketing will happen. It also gives us greater clarity of sales, which books are selling and where. We are very lucky to have such a big brand."
Of course the deal will be interpreted as a shot across the bows of traditional publishers. And why not? Despite the energetic way that the estate has looked after the Bond brand in recent times—including the development of the Young Bond books and the new titles written by Sebastian Faulks and the Jeffery Deaver version to come—it is unlikely that the estate would have seen an opportunity to self-publish in this way until fairly recently. It has seized the opportunity at the right time, and in a way that will allow it see closely how the market develops.
IFP makes good money on its Bond license. It brings in about £3m a year at the top and the bottom line is not far behind. Costs are kept low, and the office appears to be run with a minimal number of staff. Turner said they hadn't employed anyone new to bring the digital books to market. The covers are simple, and despite the notable success of previous Bond covers, will not be rejacketed until further down the line.
The trouble for book publishers is the line from Turner that she couldn't see a reason for selling the rights to Penguin, or any other publisher. Personally, I think she is mistaken: Penguin would bring a lot more oomph to the party if it really got behind the digital launch. And the books are perfect for this medium. Quick to read, slightly throw-away page-turners, that will sell more or less depending on what other activity is happening around the Bond brand-the films of course, but also the computer games, and the new book. I think a publisher will more quickly exploit these movements than a literary estate.
But I could be wrong. Piers Blofeld, an agent with Sheil Land Associates, told me he was not surprised by the deal. "It makes little sense for a brand like this to share revenue with a publisher, James Bond hardly needs a publisher's distribution and marketing skills, such as they are. I know that a lot of literary agencies with big brand names are looking at their backlist and wondering what they can do with it. Agents will always prefer to deal with publishers, but if Amazon or Google offer authors better deals then it is going to be difficult to ignore them. There is far too much focus on terms and not enough being done to convince authors that they will be published brilliantly - it can be hard to see how much publishers have to offer."
IFP has perhaps—at a stretch—18 months to make it work before it begins talking to Penguin about renewing the print license. No big publisher will want to take on the publishing rights without digital included, so IFP would need a compelling reason to resist whatever is offered. If they manage to retain the digital rights then I think we really would be in new territory, and the future for book publishers would be looking pretty tough.
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