Archive for October 11th, 2013

C’mon, Andrew Wylie. Tell us what you really think.

Friday, October 11th, 2013
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andrew-wylie

“You talkin’ to me?”

Literary agent Andrew Wylie has been nicknamed “The Jackal.”  He represents more than 700 clients and literary estates, many of them famous.  He has a distaste for the social media and a distaste for commercial fiction – so I guess I don’t have to worry about him reading what I say.  I’ve had occasion to deal with the Wylie Agency over the years, thanks to my work on Joseph Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz, and others.  I’ve always found Wylie’s people to be sharp, professional, and more than fair.  But then, I’m small potatoes, working on books with non-profit, usually academic, publishers.  If I were dealing with big-shot publishers making megabucks, maybe it would be a different story.

I always enjoy Wylie’s interviews, in any case.  This one, in the current New Republic, is cherce.  Much of it is about Odyssey Editions, his new venture for ebooks, which initially partnered with Amazon.

“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,” writes Laura Bennett. “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.”

A few excerpts:

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?

Napoleon-Bonaparte

Jeff … zat you?

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.

***

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: 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? 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.

***

hermes-scarf

Kinda like a book.

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.

 

The interview has been “edited and condensed.”  Love to see the rough cut.  (Full disclosure: I just bought a book on Amazon.)