The Business Art of Reading 
A conversation with literary agent Andrew Wylie
By Victor Bockris

From Gadfly Nov./Dec. 1999


"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?
WYLIE: Solitude.
BOCKRIS: So you have to have a good relationship with yourself?
WYLIE: Impossible.
BOCKRIS: It's impossible to have a good relationship with yourself?
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 achievements.

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."