Andrew Wylie of The Wylie Agency: Publishers should withdraw from Amazon

In a candid interview with New Republic's Laura Bennett, Andrew "The Jackal" Wylie talks about his failed e-book deal with Amazon, publishing's rosy future and making highbrow pay.

This piece was originally published on newrepublic.com

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 disinterest in 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. 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? [Timothy Ferris] 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.

This piece was originally published on newrepublic.com

The literary agent Andrew Wylie.
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Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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