"Being good in business is the most fascinating
kind of art."
—Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
In the eighteen years that Andrew Wylie has been
building his literary agency, he has put together
a unique operation with a spectacular roster of
350 of the best writers in the world. They include
Martin Amis, William Burroughs, Salman Rushdie,
David Mamet, Elmore Leonard, Larry McMurtry, Oliver
Sacks, Andre Malraux, Allen Ginsberg, Saul Bellow,
Philip Roth, Susan Sontag, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo
Calvino, John Cheever, Robert Lowell and Norman
Mailer. In the process, he has had an inexorable
influence on the publishing industry.
Gadfly contributing editor Victor Bockris interviewed
the agent to find out about life on the front lines
of the publishing industry.
"If you're in publishing and you're trying to
make money, you're in the wrong business!"
states Andrew Wylie emphatically, sitting behind
a large, punctiliously neat desk in his Manhattan
office high over Central Park on a late afternoon.
"So many people in publishing get ensnared
in this trap that money presents, then they get
distracted and lose touch with their original precepts
and with what got them into publishing in the first
place. They got into publishing in the first place
because they loved Madame Bovary, and they
ended up publishing Suze Orman or editing books
on health fads or [books by] second-rate writers
who don't speak English properly. They look around
themselves, and in the room in which they sit there
are no books that they want to read, and yet that
is their life, and it's a miserable life. It's pathetic,
it's demoralizing and disheartening and they'd be
better off driving a taxi!
"If you're in publishing and you're not doing
what you want, God help you. Because you're not
getting paid, you've got no money, you've got no
freedom, you've got no book, you've got nothing!"
He pauses for a moment, rocked back in his chair
by the rhythm of his words, and then, in a softer
voice, says, "This was a mistake that, fortunately,
I didn't succumb to."
This may come as a surprise to a number of other agents,
editors and publishers in the book industry who
see money as Wylie's primary motivation. After all,
he took a tiny operation, contained in one room
of an apartment he shared with his wife and son,
and a list of ten clients, and built them into what
must now be recognized as the leading literary agency
in the world, with offices in New York, London and
Madrid. He is affluent, with an apartment on Park
Avenue and a house in the Hamptons. But the more
I talked with Wylie that afternoon, the more I became
convinced that his drive is literature, not money.
"It's funny," he said, "when I started
out, I had a picture of how I wanted things to be.
I thought, well it would be nice if you could operate
an agency based entirely on representing only the
writers you wanted to read. It would be like a perfect
dinner party to which you would invite the people
you wanted to see, who would be the writers you
wanted to read. And gradually your set of friends
would expand as one direction would introduce you
to another, and it would be like an ever-growing
spiderweb, but it would have a very intimate core."
That intimate core is now represented by some twenty-five
employees on his payroll here and in Europe.
"And the marching orders, which everybody here
and in the other offices is very clear on, are:
If we like the text then we'll represent the writer,"
he continued. "If we don't like the text, it's
completely irrelevant whether it would sell for
a lot of money. Our decisions are based entirely
on whether we want to wake up the next day and read
more by this writer."
Wylie has developed an engaging habit of talking in
the royal "we," like the Queen of England.
It may be something he picked up from Andy Warhol,
a strong influence in his formative years. He uses
this royal "we" as Warhol did, to compliment
his staff by including them in his thought process,
but let there be no mistake: The Wylie Agency is
a one-man show. The thinking behind it, from the
books it represents to the way clients are hospitably
treated from the moment they walk through the door,
is all the product of much careful formulation on
the part of Andrew Wylie.
While Wylie has been collecting writers from all over
the world (recent trips have taken him to Argentina,
Japan, Russia, Taiwan and China), he has simultaneously
been constructing a unique agency. In the mid-1980s,
he saw more clearly than his peers did how rich
the relatively untapped international market could
be for American writers. Previously, the majority
of authors did not think much beyond publishing
in their own country. But with the growing internationalism
of the American economy, it seemed only natural
that American writing should travel abroad too.
"When we are engaged by a writer," Wylie
explained, "our job is to figure out what the
writer wants and then do our best to achieve it.
What I'm really trying to do is provide the best
representation a good writer can have. If a writer
writes a good book in the United States, then he
really wants to have it well published in as many
countries as he can. What we're trying to do is
represent writers seamlessly around the world, so
that the same principles that are brought to their
work in the home territories are applied outside.
It is very unusual for a literary agency to operate
outside their home territories at all. It's spectacularly
unusual to operate around the world without the
means of sub-agents. And that means a constant revisiting
of the backlist and the examination of the exploration
of the rights and re-licenses. It becomes particularly
important with a writer of literary significance
who had a strong backlist that is published internationally
over time. Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Susan Sontag
and Norman Mailer have big backlists that constantly
need to be revitalized, re-licensed and re-jacketed,
country to country."
A good example of Andrew Wylie in action is the manner
in which he acquired Norman Mailer: Mailer's agent
had died, and Mailer was in his sixties at a time
in which publishers were ruthlessly ridding themselves
of writers whose best work was clearly behind them.
But Mailer was still going strong. He visited four
agents, telling each of them what he was working
on, asking them to present him with a strategy of
how they would sell it when he returned a week later.
Wylie finessed the challenge in a manner uniquely
his. Putting the subject out of his mind for six
days, he prepared himself on the morning of the
seventh with fifteen minutes of research. When the
famous novelist returned on the seventh day and
asked Wylie if he had developed a strategy to sell
his new work, Wylie answered the question with one
of his own: Did Mailer know, Wylie asked, how many
of his books were out of print in the United States?
Mailer admitted that he did not. Would he be surprised,
Wylie asked, to learn that it was eighteen? Turning
it face up and sliding across the desk at him a
list of his books, with the ones in print ticked
off, Wylie then hit the astonished Mailer with an
equation: Ask yourself how many countries your books
are published in, then establish an average number
(in Mailer's case, twelve). Estimate that many more
than the control figure of eighteen books would
be out of print in each country, but use it as a
conservative estimate. Now, multiply the number
of books by the number of countries. Then multiply
that figure by estimated revenue per book per year,
using in Mailer's case a conservative estimate of
$1,000. The resulting figure of $216,000 per annum
was, as the agent put it to the author, "what
your current representation has been failing to
collect for you on previously completed work."
"So our first goal," Wylie continued his
pitch, "would be to shrink the gap between
that number and zero as much as we possibly can.
So far as representing your new and future work,"
he concluded with impressive understatement, "I'm
sure we will be able to perform both here and internationally
as aggressively as any other agency."
Mailer did not look further for an agent. Wylie had
just laid out a plan for world publication that
no other agency was capable of offering him. Furthermore,
in Wylie he had found a man who matched his own
notorious ego, ambition and imagination. He joined
the Wylie agency and has had, if anything, a markedly
higher profile and more carefully managed literary
reputation than ever before.
Andrew Wylie has always had an enormous amount of
energy. When I first met him in 1971, aged twenty-one,
he had already written a summa cum laude thesis
on Rimbaud at Harvard, translated a quantity of
the poems of the great Italian poet, Giuseppe Ungaretti,
and published them in a special issue he edited
of the high-profile, London-based poetry magazine
Agenda (the last bastion of Ezra Pound).
He had also traveled to Europe to meet Pound, and
the then recently rediscovered great Northumbrian
poet Basil Bunting, as well as the front ranks of
the younger British poets like Tom Pickard. When
Wylie and I ran a poetry press, Telegraph Books,
in 1971 and 1972, Wylie discovered all ten of the
books that we published. I argued vociferously with
him on at least three occasions, but today, according
to a survey by the New York Public Library, Telegraph
Books ranks among the top five poetry presses of
the early 1970s.
Andrew Wylie is the sort of person who makes things
happen. He brings an eagerness to every meeting.
Whether you are sitting in a Rolls Royce or in the
back of a bus, Wylie brings a sense of irreverent
humor and high purpose to the occasion that makes
the surroundings irrelevant. George Plimpton of
the Paris Review once told me that he had
always known Wylie would succeed once he had discovered
what he really wanted to do, because he had never
met a person so nonstop, full-time ambitious.
However, if the surface allure of his agency for its
authors seems built on Wylie's ability to find them
money that they had never dreamed of possessing,
Wylie's relationships go much deeper than money
with those authors with whom he is most involved
at any given time. To understand what Wylie is really
about, and why and how he can speak with such passion
and eloquence about the writers he represents, you
have to recognize that he is first and foremost
a reading artist. That is to say, in the sense that
Keith Richards talks about listening to music being
possibly a greater art than making it, Wylie has
developed reading into an art form. "The
greatest highs of my job have been in the reading,"
he admits. "One of the greatest things about
this job is I get to read early." The previous
weekend, for instance, he had read Philip Roth's
new novel. In fact, he was the first person in the
world apart from Roth to read it. "And when
I read the last sentence," he recalls, "I
stood up, walked to the phone and called him. And
that's a nice feeling as a reader. It's exciting
and it's interesting. And since we are in the position
of representing nearly every writer I want to read,
every time we get a manuscript it's pretty interesting."
Other recent examples of reading or helping to make
possible his clients' work include writing by Lou
Reed and Susan Sontag: He had been looking through
Reed's Collected Lyrics with Lou, an acquaintance
from the 1970s, and, noticing some errors, decided
to proofread the manuscript during a seven-hour
flight from New York to London. Wylie got some water
and didn't look up until the plane had landed. By
that time he had reached the conclusion that, "This
is actually a magnificent book of lyrics, and he's
as good as Rimbaud. And that's pretty fucking good.
I saw strengths in places I didn't know existed,
strange, curious flashes of tremendous beauty and
passion. And I thought, Jesus God this is good!
I mean, he's a great poet.
"On another occasion, Susan Sontag and I sat
down to discuss the possibility of becoming her
agent. One of the things she said was that she was
tired of being Susan Sontag. She wanted to spend
more time writing, and could I possibly help her
get away from being Susan Sontag quite so passionately?
And I said, "Yes. What you need is more money
in order to buy time to stop being quite so public."
And we were able to help her get more money to write
The Volcano Lover, which was her first best-selling
book. So her instincts were right."
I asked him if he had learned anything about writers
as a group that he had not known before he became
an agent. His appreciation of the degree to which
it's a lonely craft had increased, he said. "It's
a very, very lonely craft. It makes you idiosyncratic
and it's a tremendously special gift that comes
at a very high price. And when a writer is great,
the endeavor is absolutely inspiring to me. But
it's delivered at a price that is usually appalling."
BOCKRIS: What is the writer's Achilles' heel?
BOCKRIS: So you have to have a good relationship
BOCKRIS: It's impossible to have a good relationship
WYLIE: If you're a writer.
The British press has regularly had a field day with
Andrew Wylie since the mid-1980s, because he represents
to them the irresistible, starkly American, Howard
Hughes like executive who breaks all the rules in
his predatory search for victims. Thus his British
nickname, "the Jackal," earned because
of his unorthodox poaching of clients from other
agencies (most notably, British bad boy Martin Amis).
But all that seems like a very long time ago now,
and somehow insignificant in the light of recent
While collecting his formidable list of clients and
laying the groundwork for ultimate world domination
as an agent whose strategy is to represent the best
writing on the face of the earth, Wylie also became
a leading authority on, and player in, the publishing
industry in America. "Basically, the big story
in the publishing industry right now is that in
the last three years there has been a change in
the distribution model dictated by the arrival of
the Internet," he explained. At the same time,
smaller publishers that were bought by multinational
corporations suddenly had the financial muscle to
fight back against the chain bookstores, like Barnes
& Noble, which had been forcing them to feature
the downmarket fiction of the Tom Clancy/Danielle
Steel school. Now, as a result of both the publishers'
new strength and the Internet, it is, according
to Wylie, actually wiser, over time, to develop
a quality backlist than it has been in years.
Nobody could be made happier by these developments
than Andrew Wylie: "I think the Internet is
healthy and exciting," he says. "It's
sucking people away from television and sending
them into a much more literate culture based on
expression and exchange. As a result, the publishing
world has shifted back into a position where publishers
have greater inclinations to publish quality rather
than quantity. Finally, there is a business reason
for publishers to support what over the long term
would be beneficial educationally for the country.
This is the first time since I've been in this business
that publishing has been presented with an alternative
that supports something other than Danielle Steel,
which is such a relief to me, because reading Danielle
Steel is like having oral surgery without Novocain.
I think that finally the strength of the great titans
of moronic fiction is diminishing. Maybe in ten
years we'll actually have a book culture that is
supportive of good writers rather than failed entertainers."