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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser