Zola Books Claims Exclusive Rights to 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem': Is This the Rise of E-Book Fiefdom?

The latest in news from e-book industry: the website Zola Books — in an effort to create a new model of online bookselling, one that combines traditional retail with a social community — has claimed exclusive rights to the e-book edition of Slouching Toward Bethlehem, the debut collection of that tiny titan of belles lettres, Joan Didion. So as of Monday, if you want to read e-book edition of "Goodbye To All That," "On Self-Respect," "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream," or any of the classics included in Slouching, you must go through the Zola Books site. (Prior to this, the collection was not offered in e-book edition.)

In addition to offering some of Didion's other collections and novels, the company is also the sole proprietor of the works of John Gregory Dunne, Didion's husband.

This may seem like a little thing. Zola has, after all, claimed rights to just one Didion collection and some Dunne books. Zola's actions are understandable: It is trying to create a niche for itself in an online retail market dominated by Amazon, a company that, despite its stable position at the top of the pile, innovates its offerings nonetheless to attract more customers. (The Kindle Matchbook program, launched last month, is a good example of this.) Other e-book providers like Scribd have taken a different tact, creating an online rental service that allows patrons to "take out" a number of books at a time. Our current moment is something like the Wild West era of e-book retail. Companies want to stake out their claim, make their acreage more attractive than the rest. But really, it's anything goes in the e-book world.

Viewed in this light, Zola is doing just what it needs to survive, and with the added benefit of bringing a work, previously unavailable, to e-book edition. However, the collection it has claimed is an incredibly important one, a prominent member of the canon of American essays. The pieces in Slouching Toward Bethlehem fall in the tradition of New Journalism, a movement among journalists that was highly popular in the post-WWII era. Her perspective — she includes herself in her stories, and in fact, her interior responses to external events are the foundation of much of her reportage — was something of anomaly in the 1960s. There were others, like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, using a similar technique, but "group journalism," like that practiced by Time magazine (which employed her husband) was far more common. Didion's Slouching was a crucial part of the effort to establish first-person journalism — a technique that today is so commonplace that it goes almost unnoticed. Think of how many times a feature article in the New York Times Magazine or New York Magazine or The New Republic or anywhere, really, includes a sentence like, "sitting in his office, I studied the art on the walls and books on his shelves." Sentences like this are the products of Didion's influence. This is an influence so colossal that when The Paris Review, known for its "Writers at Work" interviews with fiction writers, finally launched a nonfiction series, Joan Didion was its first subject.

Therefore retaining the sole e-book rights to such a preeminent work, though it be just one, is a big deal. This is akin to staking the best piece of land — the territory with the river, the fertile soil, and not too many hills. It's hard to see such actions as more than profit-minded fiefdom-ism. Is it really in the reading public's best interest to take such an important title of the general e-book market? Almost certainly not.

But then again, Netflix does this kind of thing with movies and television series all the time. It, for example, just recently became the sole owner of the streaming rights to The Square, a documentary about the Egyptian protests and the winner of the Audience Award at Sundance. So perhaps Zola's move isn't as consequential as it seems. Perhaps Zola will introduce a model that encourages the conversion of classics into e-book editions — a move that will benefit readers.

And yet, somehow, this seems hard to believe.