John-Paul Flintoff

Coming to get you

The agent who scares publishers

Andrew Wylie, the world’s most famous literary agent, buttons his coat against the sharp New York wind and covers his head with… a hunting bonnet. It’s an unusual item – dark green, with a checked lining – which Wylie purchased in Mayfair on one of his monthly visits to London (where he has another office). Then he takes the elevator to the ground floor and crosses the road.

On the far corner of West 57th Street and Broadway is a bookstore. Wylie usually visits Coliseum Books at opening time – eight in the morning – to check out the current state of the market. Today he’s consented to break his midday schedule and take me with him.

Inside, he marches to the tables piled with the latest publications, and swoops round them, tapping firmly on each cover. “Garbage!” he barks. “Garbage! Garbage! Not good.” (That’s Michael Frayn’s Booker-shortlisted Headlong .) “Superb!” (Philip Roth, one of Wylie’s clients.) “Garbage… Garbage… Don’t know.” The shop’s staff, perhaps familiar with this routine, ignore him. But customers quietly put down the books they’re holding and shuffle nervously away from this trenchant maniac with the odd headgear.

Further into the shop, Wylie fingers the work of a youngish British writer specialising in historical novels set in Africa: “That won’t sell here,” he scoffs. “Look at the cover.” I’m not sure what he means, but Wylie’s moved on – to a book by one of his clients, a non-fiction account of the humanitarian disaster in Rwanda. “Great, huh?”

But he’s only commending books he represents. “You’re right. I’m being slavish. Are there any good books we don’t represent? Sadly, there does not seem to be anything!” Then Wylie walks round the tables again, pauses thoughtfully at Dava Sobel’s book about Galileo’s daughter – and actually stops to flick through the latest Stephen Jay Gould. “I would love to represent this man, and we don’t. It’s a source of complete annoyance to me.”

To you or me, a bookshop is a place to buy something to read. To Wylie, it’s a source of potential new clients. Hence, presumably, the hunting cap – because among agents the thing he is known for is this: he tracks down big-name authors and rustles them away from their established agents. Then with the authors’ permission he attempts to secure from publishers large sums of money for the rights to their work (of which, obviously, he retains a percentage). Most memorably, he lured Martin Amis from Pat Kavanagh, who had represented Amis for years and who also happened to be the wife of Amis’s old friend Julian Barnes.

Wylie’s critics disapprove because, they say, he has never “discovered” an author. But where is it written that agents must uncover new talent? And anyway, Wylie is not the only agent who calls other agents’ clients. Nor does he call as often as people think. “Sometimes an author we already represent tells another author about us,” says Wylie, back in the office. “They make a switch and we’re accused of being aggressive. But we don’t mind that.”

One who came to Wylie without being poached was the young historian Amanda Foreman (whose previous agent had changed careers). “Amanda said she was seeing everyone. And I liked that, because that would make us look better: if you’re looking for a race horse and you find the field is full of cows, the one horse you do find looks much faster.” (Wylie, whose conversational staple is the one-liner, is routinely dismissive about rival agents. He later compares them unfavourably with hod carriers.)

Another who tested the field was Norman Mailer (whose previous agent had died). “He said I had a week to think about it. So after six days of doing nothing I xeroxed a list of his books and compared that with the ones at the bookstore across the road. I ticked off the ones that were in print. He came in and said, ‘Have you thought about this?’ Long and hard, I said. I asked him, Do you know how many books you have written? ‘No.’ And how many are out of print? ‘No.’ So I told him and he said, ‘You’re lying.’ I worked it out for him.” Wylie takes a calculator and starts punching in figures. “If you assume that you can make $1,000 a year from overseas rights for a book, and multiply that by 21 books, times all these territories, that comes to…” He turns the calculator upside down to show me the result. “That’s what you were losing, I told him. What we will do is attempt to close the gap between zero, which your last agent achieved, and $250,000.” Mailer duly hired Wylie, joining a list of clients which also includes Saul Bellow, Elmore Leonard, David Mamet, Salman Rushdie and Paul Theroux.

Wylie works long days, sleeps little and eats fast. When his assistant delivers a fat chicken-and-salad sandwich, he unwraps it at once and takes a huge bite. In less than a minute, he’s scoffed the lot, scrunched up the wrapper and lobbed it in the bin. “I hate eating,” he explains while I process my third bite. “It’s boring.” Does he not like any food? “I like lettuce. There’s a restaurant near here where I order spaghetti and lettuce – it’s not on the menu, but they do it for me.” Ha, ha, another joke. “I’m serious,” he insists. “Is it strange to eat spaghetti and lettuce?” No, but what if he needs to impress someone? “Thankfully, I have never found a writer who thought badly of lettuce.”

Wylie’s been in this office – a block from Central Park – since 1985. Back then, he had just one room, but over the years his domain has crept gradually along the corridor and his staff numbers risen to 25. For ten years he was in partnership with the British agent Gillon Aitken, but that folded in 1996 so Wylie established his own London office, run by another Brit, Georgia Garrett.

HarperCollins, on 53rd Street, is not far from Wylie’s office; and Bertelsman, the German owner of Random House and Transworld, is moving into the area soon. Penguin remains somewhat distant – but whoever he’s dealing with, Wylie always goes to them. “They expect it. And you find out more by going to them – so I take advantage of their laziness.”

So he can be rude about publishers, as well as agents – and not just behind their backs. He recently indulged in derisive name-calling on the phone with an editor. “She didn’t understand the contract we’d agreed. I called her Einstein. She said she would pay the full amount because she didn’t want an argument, whereas I said she should pay it because that was the contract .” (Even without abuse, negotiating with Wylie is rarely pleasant: “I will be on the telephone till their dog dies,” he boasts.)

Publishers, understandably, have taken against him, some even pressuring authors to leave him. “People have been known to try that approach,” he grins. “Authors call and tell me. They’ve told me they would have got ten per cent more if they got rid of me. So you can say one thing for these publishers – their math is sound.”

But when he picks up one of his two phones to dial a London number, he’s the model of good manners. Speaking to the chief executive of a major publishing group, he regrets not seeing the man for some time, asks politely if ” the troops could be motivated” to do a little more about promoting a particular book, and ends by asking if the publisher ever gets over to New York: they should meet for a drink. When the call’s finished he turns immediately to his PC to write an email reiterating each of these points.

Then the phone rings and Wylie starts to discuss jacket-quotes for a forthcoming title. “We have statements from Clinton, Albright and… madame ?” After laughing wildly, he asks for complimentary copies of the book, one of them inscribed. “And how long will it take to get Albright’s gesprache ? Really? Well, maybe we can start with the President…” Then he calls a publisher, mentions the quotation from the White House, wonders if that might merit the expense of taking out an ad.

In the world of publishing, the marketing of a book is crucial. In the UK alone, more than 100,000 titles are published each year, and since only the tiniest proportion attract advertising budgets, the vast majority sink without trace (some don’t even get as far as the bookshops). That’s why Wylie always demands a big advance for authors: “I’ve always operated from the belief that a publisher will only be motivated to sell a book if he pays a lot of money for it. I wish it wasn’t this way, but it is.”

Thankfully for him, there’s almost always some new player – a new editor, or even a new publishing house – willing to put down a marker for the industry by paying handsomely for big-name authors: for instance, Tina Brown’s new magazine, Talk, won valuable publicity by securing Wylie’s client Martin Amis as a regular writer.

But success is possible without publishers paying a big advance. Several recent best-sellers cost little to the publishers but thrived thanks to exceptionally strong word-of-mouth recommendations (see box).

What’s more, authors who have been paid enormous sums for books which then underperform in the shops find it hard, subsequently, to attract anything like as much cash. Last year Wylie was reported to be asking for £9m for four books from Salman Rushdie. But at the Frankfurt Book Fair – where publishers from round the world congregate each October – there was little interest. “It was like pass the parcel,” says one rival agent, “but nobody wanted it. In the States they’d lost $2m on the last [Rushdie] and the Germans had lost on it too.” In a stroke described by rivals as “brilliant”, Wylie went above the editors and negotiated with management at the vast Bertelsman group. Nobody knows the precise terms – there are always variables built into contracts, such as bonuses for winning prizes, or for attaining a certain position in the best-seller charts – but it’s clear that Rushdie got millions of pounds less than Wylie had hoped for.

Aside from selling books, agents have recently become increasingly busy offering writers editorial advice: publishers, these days, have little time for this, and most books reach the reader with just a bit of copy editing. But Wylie, who does not represent beginners, has escaped this duty: “The better the writer, the less you need an editor,” he explains. ” “What you need is a publisher, a marketer . My [editorial] input is minimal. From time to time, I say something if I’m asked. I might talk about which book should come first, which second. I don’t usually say, ‘Look, Mr Amis, I don’t think this is the subject for you.’” (In contrast with his approach to agents and publishers, Wylie is extremely deferential to clients. Later, as he shows me to the door, he finds Philip Roth waiting in reception – and greets him with the term “boss”.)

Clients, understandably, are pleased about this. Amis has declared Wylie “generous, entertaining and very loyal”. Rushdie called Wylie “a lion on my behalf” during the worst days of the fatwa. A new client, Anthony Julius, seems similarly delighted: “He seems to be a discriminating reader, he can identify the good stuff among the quotidian. And he did take the trouble to read the work, which is unusual. I’ve not come across many like that.”

Wylie’s father was a publisher, and Andrew thought initially of following that career. “I tried the publishing industry and they said, ‘What bestsellers have you read recently?’ I couldn’t think of anything. I said I’d read Thucydides, I thought maybe they’d like that. But this was Doubleday, where [John] Grisham is the prime means of the assault on literature… They were spared the boredom of having me as a colleague.

“Everyone goes into publishing because they like to read. Then they get distracted. People in the publishing house drop things they don’t want on the new person’s desk, things like diet books, and that person gets confused: earning just ten quid per year, and ploughing through some lard-ass moron’s view of life. They think, I want to be paid for reading this, I might as well read Jeffrey Archer…” Like other sharp-eyed observers of the literary scene, Wylie has detected a “strange convergence” between bad writing and strong sales: “The worse you wrote, the better you sold,” he riffs. “That has not been good. [Across the publishing industry] this led to a rise in alcoholism and depravity, and broken marriage, which brought about all the self-help books – leading to a vicious circle, a frenzy.”

Wylie’s own literary taste is, by common consent, impeccable. “His list includes really great writers in many languages,” says one senior British agent. Increasingly, he’s started to represent the estates of dead writers. A common sneer is that he thus avoids the tedium of dealing with the gripes of living writers. He has little patience with this idea. “It’s more fun to represent living authors. These are people I like dealing with. When they decide to leave this life it becomes less fun. I mean, William Burroughs: do I sit around saying to myself, ‘What fun – I don’t have to talk to Bill’? No! He was great fun, a wonderful man, I miss him tremendously. Ginsberg – better dead than alive? Borges ? Please!”

As for his global outlook (“he’s international in a way that no other American is”, adds this British rival): Wylie’s screensaver features the opening words to Dante’s Inferno; he courted one of his earliest clients by singing Homer over the phone; and he claims to represent “all Japanese literature of consequence in the 20th century”. He’s also instituted a new international prize. Five publishers in different languages, including Penguin (a division of Pearson, which owns the Financial Times), put forward a book. The winning author is assured publication by publisher within a year of the award being announced.

An area of massive interest to publishers in general is South America. Largely to access that market, Wylie opened a Spanish office early last year [1999]. “We are looking for Spanish publishers for books we already represent in English, and we are looking for them to recommend authors whose foreign rights they control. We know an agent in Spain who mentioned this book by a man called Jorge Volpi, so we employed a reader to translate 75 pages, and write a report. We used that to sell it here, then in the UK. Then we went to Frankfurt with it.” He’d done the same, a year earlier, with a Norwegian author: “The publisher said they had a good first novel, they’d like me to sell the US rights, and I said, I don’t read Norwegian – and I don’t just sell the US, I sell the world. So three months later this FedEx parcel arrived. There were 50 pages, I read them overnight, saw that they were spectacularly good, and spoke to the publisher. I said, we would like to do this. We sold that in 16 languages – first in the US, then the UK, then at Frankfurt.”

For every client, Wylie maintains a full history of publishing rights. He selects a file at random: Czeslaw Milosz. “We start in Albania. Here, look at this: a list of great books that have been unsold in Albania. Understandable, but also lamentable. Next, Brazil.” He turns the page. “Two books have been sold, by [the author’s] esteemed former representatives.” (Throughout our three-hour conversation, Wylie extracts considerable comic power from this epithet, applying it liberally to people he obviously doesn’t esteem at all). “We then go to speak to publishers. We say, ‘Fellas, there is Milosz… Among other achievements he has won the Nobel. Don’t you think you should burden the population with more of his books?’ And they say, ‘Which ones do you recommend?’ So we go over the list and they say ‘Bravo!’”

Wylie is selling, he says, the modern equivalent of Shakespeare, and there’s a financial logic underlying his aesthetic taste. This argument is supported by the net, where all books are presented equally. “Under the former structure, you walked into a bookstore and saw all the downmarket, illiterate books at the front and the Shakespeare at the back, gathering dust. On the net, all books greet you immediately. So the business model shifts.” Once net retail dominates – which it will, he says, within a few years – downmarket books will be less valuable.

“It’s true, actually, that Shakespeare is more valuable than Danielle Steel, and I’m not speaking only artistically. He is less valuable per annum , but he’s had more anni to be available in.”

He makes a similar point, later, with reference to an argument he recently had with his daughter. “She said that Jim Carrey was funnier than Shakespeare.” The literary agent wasn’t having this. His characteristic riposte – droll, but also emphatic – will not have been easy for a 14-year-old to refute: “I said that Shakespeare was frequently as funny – and had been funny for more years – and in more territories.”

ADVANCES AND SALES

Andrew Wylie contends that publishers only put their best efforts behind promoting books for which they have paid a big advance. But several of the most successful books of recent years actually cost the publishers less – sometimes much less – than £20,000. They include: Dava Sobel’s Longitude (Fourth Estate), Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow (Harvill), Louis de Bernieres’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (Secker & Warburg), and the first Bridget Jones’s Diary (Picador).

Similarly, plenty of the books which did command big advances proved to be terrible loss-makers. Ted Heath was paid £400,000, and Nick Leeson £450,000 for memoirs (published respectively by Hodder & Stoughton and Little Brown) which performed appallingly in the shops. Michael Joseph paid £100,000 for The Drowning People, a first novel by 20-year-old Richard Mason, which achieved terribly disappointing sales in hardback. Meanwhile Transworld, hoping to repeat its earlier success with The Horse Whisperer, paid Robert Mawson £420,000 for a similar book, The Lazarus Child – but that bombed. Then there’s Martin Amis, whose two books with HarperCollins have some way to go to justify the £500,000 secured by Andrew Wylie…

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