December 17, 2014
The man who calls Amazon.com a monopoly visits BA
For the Herald
Andrew Wylie, a controversial literary agent, visits the Buenos Aires Book Fair and talks to the Herald
He has a crisp voice and a no nonsense manner, a precision handed down perhaps through the bankers on his mother’s side of the family. His father was publisher’s editor, a more conservative and cautious background. He decided to go into the book business with a banker’s drive to create the Andrew Wylie Literary Agency, in New York and London.
Wylie smiles, unflustered when asked the obvious about being branded “The Jackal” in the publishing business, for poaching the writers of other agencies and setting hard and high terms for publishers. “They make money, I want the authors to make money.” The mot, Jackal opens his entry in Wikipedia, which doesn’t seem kind for a website encyclopedia. He is unruffled, and equally so by being called monster, predator and madman. Somewhere it says he has been referred to as “The Trash Bag” of publishing. “Oh, I hadn’t heard that,” he remarks. When setting up his agency, he said, he went for the classic authors, the long- established who were not being adequately represented, and avoided the big commercial trade and made-to-measure or airport best-sellers.
Agent Wylie may be all that is attributed to him, but he comes across as affable, informative and very pleasant, ready to answer any question.
There are 50 people in Andrew Wylie’s offices in New York and London, to represent a list of about 950 clients, not all of them strictly authors. First surprise in the client list is the opening name: Abdullah II, King of Jordan. The list includes two Chileans, Ariel Dorfman and the Bolaños estate. He represents New York-born Uruguayan Isabel Fonseca, wife of Martin Amis. The only name from Argentina is the Jorge Luis Borges estate, managed by his widow, María Kodama. “Which is the right one to have,” Wylie quips. There is not much, if any, in the list from the rest of the continent. His writers include the likes of Philip Roth, but also politicians Henry Kissinger and Al Gore.
“We need to do more in Latin America. We only have two people who speak Spanish in the agency.” He was not on the look-out on this his fourth visit to Buenos Aires. He devoted Friday to the Book Fair, planned a quiet weekend which included supper with María Kodama, and flew back to New York last Sunday.
Wylie has established himself as a public enemy of Amazon.com, founded in 1994. So what was the reason for his strong objection to Amazon.com and the style of founder and CEO Jeff Preston Bezos?
“Initially I thought that Amazon was a beautiful idea because unlike the chains, every book was presented as a single copy, an infinite belt. So you did not get piles of Danielle Steel and one copy of Susan Sontag. You had one of each. There was equality of presentation, which was one of the horrors of the chains. Bezos decided that he would do to the publishing business what Apple did to the music industry. This meant that he would lower the retail price on digital content as low as he could and put everyone else out of business. Bezos has lost interest in physical books and wants people to buy digital. He encouraged a US Department of Justice suit against the publishing industry. The suit was brought against a group of publishers and the nature that was relevant in the law was that the government did not have to prove conspiracy between publishers, they only had to prove the possibility. So publishers who had dinner together could be faced with allegations that they were conspiring to set prices.
“And the guilty would be so for hundreds of millions of dollars because of the possibility. The DoJ was fed by Amazon. They offered documents, evidence, and they had so many lobbyists that the DoJ became Amazon’s toadie . So I am against Amazon because they are a monopoly, they have the government’s support, and unlike the music business, I think that if you destroy publishing, you destroy culture.”
For further effect, Wylie says, “Amazon even sent the police in France to raid Gallimard and another imprint to seek evidence of their conspiracy. Amazon is using the law to create the illusion that everyone they are trying to put out of business is conspiring to try to dominate Amazon.”
Born in New York in 1947, brought up outside Boston, he got to Harvard and “did a lot of things,” misbehaved, was a cab driver, tried to sell books, and in 1980 started his literary agency, going into temporary partnership with the London-based Scot, Gillon Aitken in 1986. “I had only twelve authors. What Gillon Aitken provided was a way to be international without using sub-agents.” He is not the biggest agent in the business, but he retains a lead in controversy. He seems to spend much of the time in airports and planes or at his desk, “My kids tell me I speak like a Brit.” He gets up at five each morning, reads his emails, works out, and goes to the office. So what does he breakfast? “I’m not a breakfast man. I drink coffee, eat later.”
Did his authors come to him, or did he go out shopping or “poaching” as he was accused?
“Some people come to us now, but for many, many years no one came to us, we had to go to them. I’m perfectly happy to go to meet people, I follow my curiosity and my passion. If I think a writer is really good, I get in touch with him. And if he has an agent and he will talk to me, I will tell him, “Look, here’s the way things are and the way things should be. We can make it this way.” That has led to a sense that we poach. I see it differently. If a writer needs money, he has to make enough to survive. The kind of writers we represent are not rich like commercial writers. Philip Roth said that we helped him to get paid like a doctor.”
He once wrote poetry, back in 1972 he published Yellow Flowers, a book of verses considered sexually explicit that he feels was a youthful escapade, best forgotten. “When I came to New York I tried to sell some books, mostly what I had from college, which I left in 1969. I only had two interested customers who looked in, one was (composer) John Cage (1912-1992) and the other was Bob Dylan. Everyone else came in, took a look and went away. I didn’t have much to do, so I took up writing poetry, and became friends with (singer, poet, artist) Patti Smith and various literary people.”
Where does he see the future of his agency? “I have told my colleagues in the agency that I would be attending the weekly office meeting for at least ten years after I die.
“However, I have a designated successor and shareholder in the company. She is Sarah Chalfant, who now runs the London office, but spent over a decade in New York.”
He smiles, and looks comfortable with that.