Amazon will publish the James Bond books in the U.S.

When the Ian Fleming estate gave up the digital rights to the James Bond backlist last month, Random House UK’s Vintage grabbed the English-language print and e-book rights everywhere outside the U.S. and Canada. Well, guess who’s getting those North American digital rights? Amazon (s AMZN).

Amazon announced today that it’s acquired a ten-year license for the North American rights to the print and digital James Bond backlist, as well as James Bond author Ian Fleming’s two nonfiction titles. All of the books will be reissued by Amazon Publishing’s mystery and thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer, starting this summer.

“We believe that Amazon Publishing has the ability to place the books back at the heart of the Bond brand, balancing traditional publishing routes with new technologies and new ways of reaching our readers,” Ian Fleming Publications managing director Corinne Turner said in the release.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Bond e-books “will be initially available only via Amazon’s Kindle e-book store.” That means that Barnes & Noble will likely refuse to carry the print books.

Penguin had held world English print rights to the books, but suggested to The Bookseller that renewing those rights was not worth the high cost. Amazon has repeatedly demonstrated that it will spend large sums of money on acquiring titles, but publishers likely did not suspect that the company was in the running for the James Bond books.

How big a deal is this?

The James Bond books have sold 100 million copies worldwide. Of the 16 titles that Amazon is acquiring, the “newest,” Octopussy and the Living Daylights, was published in 1966. Daniel Craig appears in a new Bond movie, “Skyfall,” this autumn — it is the twenty-third Bond film and is not based on a Fleming title.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s when the books were released, they were only semi-hits in the U.S. The movies have been much more popular here; they’ve grossed a little over $5 billion. This is to say that “James Bond” is a very recognizable brand — and a symbolic win for Amazon, at what was likely a very high price — but that does not necessarily translate into huge book sales in 2012.