BOOKS OCTOBER 7, 2013
Among literary agents, Andrew Wylie is as old school as they come. Dubbed “the Jackal” for his aggressive poaching of other people’s clients, his distaste for commercial fiction and his disdain for social media is legendary. He is the reigning king of the backlist, profiting mainly off classic titles rather than taking risky bets on new ones. His only criterion is enduring quality, and his client list is eye-popping: Amis, Nabokov, Bellow, Rushdie, Roth.
It might seem that Wylie’s single-minded emphasis on highbrow literature would have made him an early casualty of the turmoil in book publishing. Instead, he has thrived—throughout the rise of the mega-bookstores, the emergence of Amazon, and the e-book turf war over digital rights and royalties. In 2010, Wylie launched his own publishing initiative, Odyssey Editions, collaborating with Amazon to release digital editions of major books such as Lolita and Midnight’s Children, bypassing publishers entirely. It was an attempt to pressure publishing houses to offer higher e-royalties to his authors, but after Random House refused to do business with the Wylie Agency, he backed down.
The publishing industry has now arrived at yet another crossroads. Last year, a Department of Justice (DOJ) lawsuit charged five major publishing houses and Apple with e-book price-fixing, a major victory for Amazon. In July, Random House and Penguin merged to form a corporate colossus that controls a quarter of world book publishing. That has left literary agents scrambling to define their role. Will consolidation mean fewer places to pitch projects or stronger publishers with more purchasing power? Could Amazon succeed in eliminating middlemen entirely?
When I visited Wylie at his midtown office, I was struck by the total, airless calm. Its neatness is inhuman, all stacked books and white walls. As for Wylie himself, everything about him suggests an elegant efficiency, from his carefully crossed ankles to the sculptural placement of his hands. And he is not worried at all.
Laura Bennett: Tell me about the first time you saw a Kindle.
Andrew Wylie: I was in Rome, in the back of a taxi, and I couldn’t see it. So I thought, fuck this. This was in 1924 or something when the Kindle was launched. I bought it right away and discarded it immediately. And I haven’t picked it up again. Mea maxima culpa.
LB: What was your reaction when Amazon arrived on the scene?
AW: Amazon seemed to me a beautiful response to the chains. We had an equal playing field for Humboldt’s Gift and the latest number-one best-selling kerfuffle.
LB: When did your feelings change? I assume it didn’t help when Amazon launched its own publishing house.
AW: I am not one of those who thinks that Amazon’s publishing business is an effort marked by sincerity. If you are as clever as Jeff Bezos, you don’t do it the way he’s doing it.
LB: What do you mean?
AW: I believe that Amazon has its print publishing business so that their behavior as a distributor of digital content can be misperceived by the Department of Justice and the publishing industry in a way that is convenient for Amazon’s bottom line.1 That is exactly what I think.
LB: So why did you decide to partner with Amazon in 2010?
AW: I spent nine months talking to the publishing industry about the fact that digital royalties should be closer to fifty percent than twenty-five. I got nowhere.
LB: Hence, Odyssey Editions?
AW: It launched as a stealth operation. Random House said they weren’t going to do business with us.
LB: Was that a surprise?
AW: Total surprise. I should have thought of it, but I hadn’t.
I thought I could go out of business. If we were unable to do business with Random House, we could not be effective agents.
LB: You’ve called Odyssey a “small, loud project.”
AW: It was loud. Twenty books.
I think the points I was trying to make with Odyssey are pretty clearly correct. If you do not pay a higher e-book royalty than twenty-five percent, writers who can make four times as much per book will go straight to digital. There is a willing distributor called Amazon, and they are on a tear. And if [Amazon] can achieve the cessation of print publishing, and have exclusive control over digital publishing and distribution, they will be happy campers.
LB: What’s the status of Odyssey now?
AW: We don’t go into conflict with publishing houses now. We put books on it that authors want.
LB: Is it making you money?
AW: I’m sure it is. I haven’t looked at it very hard.
LB: Do you consider yourself an activist?
AW: Oof. What a terrible thing. Probably. How embarrassing.
LB: So what is your next move?
AW: Instead of being intimate like a massage parlor, we should be able to expand infinitely, like a Borgesian library. The idea is to be able to maintain the same level of service for a growing number of clients.
We don’t need to diversify. We do better for ourselves and for those we represent by becoming more dominant globally in the single field of literary representation.
LB: What would it take to get you to sell a book to Amazon?
AW: If one of my children were kidnapped and they were threatening to throw a child off a bridge and I believed them, I might.
LB: That sounds reasonable.
AW: We’ve actually done a couple of deals. Not because I wanted to, but because people I’ve represented wanted to.
LB: But nothing in print by Amazon Publishing?
AW: A couple of e-book originals. Nothing in print.
LB: What would you do if Martin Amis said, “I really want Amazon to publish my book”?
AW: I would talk him out of it. I would say, “Look at Amazon’s lack of success with authors.” Who was that muscle man who decided that he’d get more money from Amazon than from [Crown Publishing] and sold seventeen books when he’d sold six hundred thousand before?2 He swan dived into the pavement.
If Mrs. Bezos had published her book with Amazon, I’d be more convinced. She seems to feel that Knopf is a better publishing company than Amazon. Her agent could probably tell you why. That’s Amanda Urban.
LB: Do you feel as hostile toward Amazon as you used to?
AW: I think that Napoleon was a terrific guy before he started crossing national borders. Over the course of time, his temperament changed, and his behavior was insensitive to the nations he occupied.
Through greed—which it sees differently, as technological development and efficiency for the customer and low price, all that—[Amazon] has walked itself into the position of thinking that it can thrive without the assistance of anyone else. That is megalomania.
LB: That sounds different from the attitude you had in 2010.
AW: I didn’t think that [in 2010] the publishing community had properly assessed—particularly in regard to its obligations to writers—what an equitable arrangement would look like.
And I felt that publishers had made a huge mistake, because they were pressured by Apple and Amazon to make concessions that they shouldn’t have made.
These distribution issues come and go. It wasn’t so long ago that Barnes and Noble was this monster publishing leatherette classics, threatening to put backlists out of print. Amazon will go, and Apple will go, and it’ll all go.
I think we’d be fine if publishers just withdrew their product [from Amazon], frankly. If the terms are unsatisfactory, why continue to do business? You think you’re going to lose thirty percent of your business? Well, that’s OK, because you would have a thirty percent higher margin for seventy percent of your business. You have fewer fools reading your books and you get paid more by those who do. What’s wrong with that?
LB: I once tried to interview [Amazon Publishing head] Larry Kirshbaum. Amazon did not seem eager to make that happen.
AW: [rolls eyes] Larry came to see me at the London Book Fair last year and asked when I was going to sell a book to Amazon. I said, “Never,” and he said, “Never say never,” and I said, “Larry, never. Goodbye.”
It’s not serious. They can’t get their books into any bookstores.
LB: But what if bookstores carried their books?
AW: It would be a different game. And if they hired a couple of civilized people. They don’t publish anything of any interest to anyone.
LB: They do better with genre fiction, at least.
AW: They can do all of that shit. Take over daytime television, too. They are deeply into refrigeration.
LB: Are you really as relaxed about the future of the industry as you sound?
AW: I am as calm as I’ve ever been in my life. I was concerned for a while. I think everything’s going to work out.
LB: What would you like to see happen?
AW: The biggest single problem since 1980 has been that the publishing industry has been led by the nose by the retail sector. The industry analyzes its strategies as though it were Procter and Gamble. It’s Hermès. It’s selling to a bunch of effete, educated snobs who read. Not very many people read. Most of them drag their knuckles around and quarrel and make money. We’re selling books. It’s a tiny little business. It doesn’t have to be Walmartized.
LB: Is that a widely held belief among agents?
AW: No, I don’t think so.
LB: You grew up with a father who worked in publishing. Was there a disdain for mass-market fiction in your house?
AW: Not really. I think what I wanted to know was: Is it possible to have a good business? The image I had was, if you represented writers who are good, they and you were doomed to a life of poverty and madness and alcoholism and suicide. Dying spider plants and grimy windows on the Lower East Side. On the other side of my family, there were bankers. So I wanted to put the two together.
LB: How did you put the two together?
AW: What I thought was: If I have to read James Michener, Danielle Steel, Tom Clancy, I’m toast. Fuck it. This is about making money. I know where the money is. It’s on Wall Street. I’m not going to sit around reading this drivel in order to get paid less than a clerk at Barclays. That’s just stupid. So if I want to be interested in what I read, is there a business? Answer: Yes, there is.
And the way to make it a business, I figured out, was: One, if you are going to represent the best, you must represent a preponderance of the best. You’ve got to be very aggressive about representing the right people. Two, it has to be international and seamless.
LB: Has it gotten more difficult to represent good books in recent years?
AW: Some prices are coming down, but they are not coming down that drastically. There are a lot of markets. Over there on that table there is Alaa Al Aswany out of Egypt, number one there. Karl Ove Knausgaard, appearing in translation, was number one in every Scandinavian country—six volumes for a couple of years. Paolo Giordano and Roberto Saviano, who were recently number one in Italy. This is fairly viable.
LB: Are there any commercial best-sellers that interest you? Like say, The Art of Fielding.
AW: Didn’t read the book. We did not engage when the opportunity to represent it arose.
LB: I’ve heard you don’t deal much with young writers.
AW: Young writers, when they see me, it’s like meeting Ronald Reagan.
Sometimes I go in to pay my respects. Everyone is perfectly polite, but you can tell they’d be a lot comfier if I’d just get the fuck out. So I do.
LB: Do you like book fairs?
AW: The Frankfurt Book Fair is my idea of heaven.
The London Book Fair is a sort of squalid thing. The agents are in an agent center and it’s ghastly. Like being in a primary school in Lagos. It’s a bunch of agents sitting together at primary school tables.
LB: It’s hard to imagine you wandering through the digital section, with all the e-reader displays and Amazon people.
AW: It’s like driving through a bad neighborhood. I just keep focused on the road and hope to arrive in the country.
LB: Someone told me [the Hollywood firm] Creative Artists Agency recently wanted to buy you.
AW: We looked at it.
You end up understanding that a merger would put this company in the hands of someone for whom the company wasn’t very important. I’m much more interested in figuring out how to make this place last with the same standards for two hundred years.
LB: What do you lose sleep over, at this point?
AW: I was nervous a few years ago.
But I don’t expect this agency to be out of business in the next one hundred years.
I am optimistic about Penguin Random. It will need a lot of product to feed its size. I think it will help sustain the industry—not only itself, but others. If you eat all the grass on the hill, eventually you don’t have any topsoil, Mr. Bezos.
I think the balance sheet of publishers will strengthen, and then, through negotiation, the balance sheet of writers will strengthen.
Unless you’re a terribly bad writer, you are never going to have too many readers.
LB: Would you want your children to be literary agents?
AW: I don’t think it’s their inclination.
LB: Why not?
AW: Probably life with father. I’ve probably paid a little less attention to my children than I have to the publishing industry.
LB: If you weren’t a literary agent, what would you be doing?
AW: I don’t have any other skills. If the industry dies, I die with it.
Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic. This interview has been edited and condensed.