The future of book publishing?
For a man who foretells doom, Andrew Wylie looks upbeat. There’s a glint in the literary super-agent’s cool green eyes as he contemplates a crucial time for his industry.
Should negotiations between publishers and Amazon about e-book royalties “go south,” he says, “the whole culture will go to zero, and we’ll end up with a Berlusconi world of people in bikinis jumping up and down on game shows.”
This would not be a good situation — least of all for Wylie, who has built up a stable of nearly 1,000 clients, focusing on such big, highbrow names as Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe and, in Canada, AnnMarie MacDonald.
Since founding The Wylie Agency in 1980, he has resolutely opposed the culture of the bestseller by convincing publishers to look at the long term, at books that might conceivably be read in the decades and centuries to come — that is, if the bungabunga doesn’t take over.
And to ensure this, the man known as “The Jackal” for his predatory practices is now recasting himself as the publishing
Pbusiness’s unlikely saviour.
Wylie is both an insider and a rebel: He’s a Harvard graduate who spent much of the 1970s hanging out with Andy Warhol in a bohemian Manhattan demimonde. Nowadays, he’s a nattily attired iconoclast touting the future of the printed word.
He’s convinced that oldfashioned literary values can triumph. Part of what’s necessary, he believes, is to speak out against an atmosphere of “terror” created by the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2012, it sued six publishers and Apple for collusion in setting their own plans to sell e-books.
“The Department of ‘Injustice’ lawsuit was the most unjust, misguided, insane suit in my mature life,” he says. “A lot of agents won’t talk about it publicly. A lot of publishers won’t. They can’t have lunch with each other without a lawyer being present to make sure they don’t say anything that could be interpreted as restraint of trade — otherwise known as restraining Amazon.”
“What’s good for authors right now is that their interests are aligned with publishers, and that has not been the case for the last 30 years,” he says.
He points to the Penguin/ Random House merger as a way of building up a company big enough to resist Amazon, and to Simon & Schuster’s recent “satisfactory” deal with the e-retailer over royalties.
With more such deals, he says, “the business will be restored to health and authors can actually make more money.”
Wylie maintains that the only way to get publishers to promote literary titles adequately is to convince them to pay handsomely in the first place. And as advances and royalties have generally dropped in recent years, his agency has prospered by operating in many markets.
For all the brouhaha over ebooks, Wylie says, they’re disposable: We always return to good old-fashioned books.
He disputes the contention of his client Will Self that digital media have led to the death of the serious novel: “A number of writers have said, ‘We are at the end of the process,’ but I think that their feeling, which I respect and sympathize with, is akin to an Ebola panic in airports in the United States. Chances are, things are going to work out.”