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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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon