Pat Conroy and the e-book future

NEW YORK - August 10, 2010

"I was at a signing in Georgia, and a guy came up to me with a Kindle and he pressed a button and there it was, my book (`South of Broad')," Conroy said during a recent telephone interview. "I'm a complete ignoramus when it comes to everything about the Internet. I kept noticing people in planes and shops were reading these things. I couldn't understand these instruments. I didn't know what they were."

Among the country's most beloved writers, the 64-year-old Conroy hasn't allowed his distance from the digital world to keep him from joining it. Much of his work is available electronically and four of his older books, including "The Prince of Tides" and "The Great Santini," are coming out this month - starting Tuesday - through Open Road Integrated Media, a digital company co-founded a year ago by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman and film producer Jeff Sharp.

The books were finished long ago, but Conroy still had to work for the e-releases. Open Road sent a film crew to the author's home on Fripp Island, S.C., where he underwent what he calls the most in-depth interview of his life, "the hardest questions and most intimate questions." Interview highlights about the books themselves will be included at the beginning of a given work. Interviews about his life in general will appear at the end.

"They spent all this time with me and they have not irritated me yet," he said with a laugh.

Conroy is a good example of the divided state of electronic books. With standard contracts now including digital rights, e-editions of his recent works - from "South of Broad" to a memoir out this fall, "My Reading Life" - are handled by Random House, Inc., which also releases the bound versions. Meanwhile, rights to his older books have shifted among outside companies.

The Open Road releases were first published by Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), but came out before the rise of e-books, when many contracts did not specifically cover rights to electronic editions.

"It's our goal to exercise, or obtain, all e-rights on our entire backlist, including the deep backlist, but in this instance we negotiated an agreed-upon separation of print from electronic, to our mutual satisfaction," Houghton Mifflin Harcourt spokeswoman Lori Glazer said in a statement.

Conroy and his agent, Marly Rusoff, both say the major appeal of Open Road was not royalties, although Open Road almost surely is offering more than the 25 percent most publishers give, but how the books would be packaged and promoted.

For several years, "Prince of Tides" was released through a licensing agreement with rival digital publisher, RosettaBooks. But after the Rosetta contract expired, Rusoff thought it better to try a new company.

"Nothing had been done to promote the books; they were languishing, I felt," Rusoff says. "What made me introduce Pat to the people at Open Road was the visual element of their books. I think that can enhance the experience. None of that was happening at Rosetta."

"Did I want to renew this license? The answer is `Yes,'" says Rosetta founder Arthur Klebanoff, who has fought with Random House over rights to older titles. "But until the arrival of the Kindle, you had a tiny, tiny marketplace. That has changed dramatically over the last 12 years, but if you're an agent looking for results and you were hanging around with Rosetta for nine years, it looks like there's no action."

Conroy says he doesn't involve himself deeply in e-book decisions, calling himself, good-naturedly, "one of those writers who's bullied by his agent - especially in this area." (Rusoff believes otherwise.) At home with "the smell" and "the heft" of paper, he has no desire to read books on a screen, but accepts that others do.

"I imagine there will be paper books, at least until people like me die out," he says. "But I don't think there's any reason to worry about it.

"I remember talking to my grandparents when I was a little kid and they both told me about the first time they had seen an airplane and the first time they had seen an automobile and they both would say, `This'll never work.' But that's how progress works. That's how the future happens."

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