domingo, 16 de diciembre de 2007

lecturas de fin de semana [ 62 ] / el mundo según el agente literario andrew wylie, más conocido como 'el chacal'

A través de Maud Newton encontré una extensa entrevista al agente literario Andrew Wylie —mejor conocido como “El Chacal”—, quien representa no sólo a grandes autores de nuestro tiempo como Salman Rushdie, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Philip Roth, Jorge Luis Borges e Italo Calvino sino también a figuras del mundo político y empresarial como Nicolas Sarkozy, el padre de Bill Gates, el CEO de Oracle y algunos altos funcionarios de Washington. Tanto en el perfil que hace Lloyd Grove como en las palabras de Wylie se perciben claramente los fundamentos de su carácter, de la visión que tiene de su negocio y de la estrategia con la que lo maneja.

Reproduzco algunos apartes de la entrevista que ilustran en qué consiste el trabajo de los agentes literarios y las jugadas a través de las cuales Wylie ha conseguido convertir su agencia en lo que es actualmente.

World According to ... Andrew Wylie

by Lloyd Grove

Dec 14 2007

The literary agent who has rewritten several chapters of the book publishing business stands up for his writers, elitism, and (but not the Kindle).

New York literary agent Andrew Wylie seems perfectly happy to be known as "the Jackal" —the nickname that sticks even though he obtained it years ago in Britain during a publishing dustup whose baroque details have largely faded from memory. He's equally unruffled when book editors and rival agents call him an "evil madman," a "cold-eyed predator," and a "monster."

The 59-year-old Wylie, more famous than many of the 600-plus authors he represents, has devoted his career to shaking up the once-genteel book business on both sides of the Atlantic by doing things that just weren't done —stealing writers from fellow agents, demanding and receiving outrageous advances, and otherwise making a huge pain of himself in the service of his clients. (He became the Jackal in the course of securing a previously unheard-of $750,000 advance for Martin Amis, who —in an alleged act of betrayal that was the stuff of tabloid melodrama— retained Wylie after dumping his longtime agent, the wife of his best friend, fellow novelist Julian Barnes.)

Today Wylie's stable of thoroughbreds, living and dead, also includes Salman Rushdie, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Philip Roth, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and many others who constitute a who's who of the planet's best writers.

Wylie grew up as the son of a respected book editor in an old-money Boston family, studied French literature at Harvard, and entered the publishing game relatively late in life, when he was already in his 30s, after a misspent youth of Bohemian excess, which included hanging out with Andy Warhol, writing dirty poetry, and partaking of all manner of dangerous drugs.

Today he's an unapologetic snob. In his droll way, with an upper-class accent that sounds more English than American, Wylie is an evangelist for the principle that nominally noncommercial literary authors —whose work will stand the test of time, he believes— deserve at least as much consideration and cash as the likes of John Grisham and Stephen King. Rewarding elitism is only good business, he argues.

The secret of his success?

"When you represent someone's work, if you're passionate about it, and that passion is sincere, it's conveyed," Wylie told this week in an exclusive interview. "And it's hard to resist passion."

Lloyd Grove: Well, you look like a perfectly nice man. How did all these nasty names attach themselves to you?

Andrew Wylie: I think that if you're building an agency from scratch, it's a difficult thing to do. If you're building an agency from scratch that is, by design, focused exclusively on the upper end of the market in terms of quality, it becomes exponentially more difficult, because the margins —which are thin anyway in publishing— will get thinner as the quality increases. And what we were trying to do was to represent quality with the same kind of discipline that had been brought to the representation of bestsellers. (…)

L.G.: Do you still charge 10 percent?

A.W.: No, 15.

L.G.: When did you raise it to 15?

A.W.: We were the last in the industry. I think it was about 18 months ago.

L.G.: That was a big deal because, oh, my God, there are some people charging 20 percent now.

A.W.: Yeah, we were holdouts. I really do think we were the last.

L.G.: Why did you hold out so long?

A.W.: We could.

L.G.: But was that a matter of principle? You just liked that idea?

A.W.: Well, the people we represent are not writers who make the most money in the business. The greatest advances are paid either to disgraced politicians or to failed novelists. We don't represent either category.

L.G.: By failed novelists, do you mean people who write bad novels? They're commercially successful, but literarily they've failed?

A.W.: Yeah, in my view. But the key point in the business is that the investment is made in the wrong areas in the business, and I think that quality —which is more valuable over time— has been undervalued, and quantity —which is less valuable over time— has been overvalued. And I think this is a reaction to the dominance of the influence of the chains. In England right now, this is a catastrophe. The retail side is leading the business by the nose, and publishers have not reacted with sufficient strength, and they should have. And so the business in England is just in the tank basically.

L.G.: Really?

A.W.: Yeah. Because the publishers have given in to every act of aggression that's proposed by the chains, and it's been very bad for business. Everything is deeply discounted, there are endless two-for-three deals and stuff like that, with the authors getting reduced royalty, and the publishers having an already thin margin decimated by being compelled or agreeing to higher discount arrangements with the chains. It's very shortsighted, and it's all an aspect of publishers trying to cover over the fundamental weaknesses of their respective businesses with, you know, misleading cash flow. (…)

L.G.: And you just brought in Scott Moyers, the former editor of Penguin Press?

A.W.: Yeah, that's right. Really what happened structurally was that Sarah Chalfant ran the New York office for the last decade, and I ran the London office. She is a Brit, however she's been here for 15 years, and the last 10, she's run the day-to-day business of the New York office, while I've run the day-to-day business of the London office. And I've been going to London once a month for the last 20 years. When she announced that she'd like to go to London, which was a good thing from my point of view, we arranged for Scott to come here and fill her shoes. And now she runs London, Scott runs New York. (…)

L.G.: Tell me, how big is the book industry? I've seen statistics that in the United States, it's somewhere north of $30 billion. I don't know what it is, $25 billion to $26 billion in Europe? But that's the whole industry. It's a relatively small industry. Dwarfed by television, by Google, by the internet.

A.W.: Dwarfed by shoe shining. It's a very odd, very small business, that no one should get into unless they have no other occupation that they want to be involved in. I love it, but it's tough —you have to work two or three times harder than you do at other jobs to succeed.

L.G.: What's the reward for you, other than financial?

A.W.: The reward is aesthetic. I respond to interesting writing and provocative thinking more passionately and deeply than I do to painting or film or music. That's just where my interests lie. At its best, it's completely satisfying to me, and everything else is gravy. (…)

L.G.: And relatively recently, you've been trying to make some forays into France, where literary agentry is not a tradition.

A.W.: Well, I went to France once a month for about a year, and I wasn't really sure what it was about. But I think the best way to describe it is that, as an aspect of keeping this business properly tuned, we need to renew and scour our information. I go to Italy a lot, and I keep our Italian understanding and our Italian operation pretty up-to-date by visiting Italy six to seven times a year. (…)

L.G.: But the dollar to euro ratio must be killing you.

A.W.: No, because we do business in England in euros and sterling, so it's fine. In fact, I think it's attractive, because so much of our business is in sterling and euros.

L.G.: I see, so you're actually in the good currency —you've actually got an advantage from this fiasco that's preventing me from going to Europe for the next several years.

A.W.: Yeah. So our business is getting to where I want it to be-50 percent U.S., 50 percent outside of the U.S., which is pretty much the same equation that the film industry operates on. We're in all of Europe and Asia-we put Asia through London as well. Hollywood works on this model, and every dollar is divided equally, 50 percent U.S., 50 percent non-U.S., so obviously if the dollar is weak and the euro is strong, there are disadvantages. But there are also advantages. For instance, the [Italo] Calvino arrangement in Italy is a euro-based arrangement which has moved considerably in the past few years to our advantage.

L.G.: And everybody on your client list, including the Calvino estate, you represent globally?

A.W.: Globally.

L.G.: And for his Italian language works as well as the translations?

A.W.: Right, and [Jorge Luis] Borges, in Spanish as well as everywhere else.

L.G.: Who's giving you, at this point, the greater cash flow —your dead authors or your live ones?

A.W.: Probably live —yeah, I'm sure it's live. But there are some considerable estates that we represent. Our business, the best piece of it, is all about figuring out —when a writer is young—whether they will, in the course of time, write many books which will remain in print, in many languages. And then to get those writers into the right hands, internationally, country by country, so that their revenues and their presentation internationally will be maximized. In the case of older, more established writers, who come to us later in their careers, what we find is that usually agencies in this country have not a very thorough knowledge of foreign markets and don't have a lot of access to those markets directly. They operate as subagents. So they don't really understand the difference between one house and another. And furthermore, they don't really know the people involved. So, because I have traveled so much, and concentrated so much on this aspect of the business, I can pick up the phone and tell [leading French publisher] Antoine Gallimard that I think this writer is very important, and because we know each other and he knows that for 20 years, I haven't done this every few months, that there must be a reason for it, then it's probably worth paying attention to. And so we also look at getting a writer's rights renewed on a regular basis-redesigned, re-presented, so we're quite a lot more diligent at that side of the business than I think all of our competitors are. Because I think their focus is more national. So our bet, financially speaking, is that if you are going to represent quality, you must do so internationally, and it must be a long-term bet. So all our representations are representations made in the belief that the people we represent will last and will be published internationally.

L.G.: By the way, how long have you had Nicolas Sarkozy in your stable?

A.W.: Well, he was the first French client, and we got him about 15 or 16 months ago. And, interestingly enough, in Paris, as you might imagine, nearly everyone in the literary world is on the left —so it was an odd thing to do for us to engage with Sarkozy before he was president. And it seemed pretty clear to me that he was the right choice in France. (…)

L.G.: You met with him?

A.W.: No, we engaged through his publisher Bernard Fixot of XO editions-coincidentally, his stepbrother [Olivier Sarkozy, a top executive at UBS], bought [Wylie client] Dick Avedon's house [on the Upper East Side] after Dick died. And he's a very nice guy. Anyway, I think eyebrows were a little bit raised in Paris that we were not supporting [Sarkozy's left-leaning opponent] Segolene Royale.

L.G.: Was she looking for an agent too?

A.W.: Probably. I mean, everyone in France —every lawyer you speak to, every cabdriver— has a novel.

L.G.: So, looking at your list, you have 600 clients supposedly —is that what it is?

A.W.: I think it's a little more than that.

L.G.: More than 600. But there are some distinctly nonliterary names here. Like [Oracle founder and C.E.O.] Larry Ellison.

A.W.: That's a very literary name! What are you talking about? [Laughs] There are some people we represent who are in business or finance. (…)

L.G.: And what's the status of Tess Gallagher's hope to publish pre-Gordon Lish-edited versions of her late husband Raymond Carver's short stories? [Lish edited Carver's work at Esquire magazine and at Knopf.]

A.W.: Moving along nicely.

L.G.: Is it? Now that was a case where [powerful ICM agent Amanda] Binky Urban represented that estate-and now you do.

A.W.: Yes. (…)

L.G.: What's your view? What would you like to have happen?

A.W.: I think that Carver wrote some stories. They were edited. And in the process of being edited, they were adjusted to a degree that he was not entirely comfortable with. And so I think that both the stories as he wrote them and the stories as they were published should be allowed to exist together. And readers can say "I like the Lish-edited version," or "I like the Carver-edited version." What you have now is an understanding of Carver's work that is based —at least in the understanding of the collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love— with a version of Carver's work that bears the very heavy imprint of Gordon Lish. And when you look at the original versions, you see that the progression from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? [1976] to Cathedral [1984] is a more natural progression than reviewers believed when they all said, around the publication of Cathedral, "My God, what a deepening of the work!" I'm not suggesting that Cathedral is any less deep, but the progression is somewhat more logical if you move through the natural, less edited version of Ray's work. That's all. I think that in the same way you have Coppola wanting to release a full, unedited version of Apocalypse Now, and you have unedited versions of Faulkner and Hemingway being brought to light, I think this needs to be brought to light. And I think the reluctance to bring it to light is curious, and I don't think it's traditional. It's untraditional to not allow it to be brought to light. What conceivable reason could you have? (…)

L.G.: I mean, maybe this is an apocryphal story, but supposedly when you first started to represent Philip Roth, I don't know how many years ago that was, you went to Roger Straus [the late founder of Farrar Straus & Giroux] and demanded a certain sum, he told you, quote-unquote, "Go fuck yourself."

A.W.: It was something along those lines. Roger was always fun to talk to-

L.G.:-like Hillary Clinton says, "the fun part."

A.W.: I loved Roger, I really did. The structure of Philip's deal, prior to our representation, before around 1989 [starting with Roth's novel Deception] was this: The world rights to Philip's work were sold by Philip to Roger Straus, and Roger had a set of friendships, as everyone does, and maybe some of those friendships he didn't want to burden with a sort of scouring intensity, as to the terms. So everything was sort of in place, and rolling along. If Philip put a fork in him a little bit and said "I'd like to have more money," Roger would turn around and license the paperback rights to Penguin and take money from Penguin —because Roger was risk-averse, aren't we all— and burden Penguin with a portion of the risk. The whole thing structurally did not work to Philip's advantage. And my view was that if you have Book X, and Publisher A pays $100,000 and Publisher B pays a million, chances are you will sell more copies from Publisher B, than you will from Publisher A. Because Publisher B, having the larger investment, will print more copies. Will encourage its sales force to distribute more copies. Those copies will go toward the front of the bookstore rather than the back, and more copies will sell. So, multiplying that by the 20-odd languages that Roth is traditionally published in, and organizing the backlist so that it all expired on license on the same day and was subject to renegotiation every seven years, country by country, I think what we did was make the Roth business work more efficiently. Philip is very polite and he pretends that we made some kind of a significant contribution. [Laughs] I don't think so, but we do argue about this. I think what happened was, he wrote a series of great books, so changing the structure of his publishing arrangements was a good idea. And it was done at the right time. But it had very little to do with this tremendous burst of energy and creativity that really began with Operation Shylock [1993] and has run without stopping ever since. I mean, I can't think of another example of similar productivity late in life. It's an amazing thing.

L.G.: By the way, did Roth and the rest of your authors react positively to your up-charge from 10 to 15 percent? Or did you hear some squawking?

A.W.: No, there was no squawking, because everybody understood that we were the last ones in. I'm trying to remember if anyone squawked. Um...there was one squawk. (…)

L.G.: That's disappointingly diplomatic of you. But if you were going to give some principles of how you squeeze the maximum advance out of a publisher, what are some of the ways, the gamesmanship, that you use?

A.W.: I would say that having access to international markets makes it easier to realize the right value, market by market. So if you're selling in the United States in a vacuum, your ability to move things is limited. People don't understand that with Philip, with the post-Operation Shylock Roth that we all know and love and admire so much, what happened, actually, was that he succeeded first in France, second in Germany, third in England, fourth in the U.S., fifth in Italy, and sixth in Spain. Now, most agencies would only be able to tell you "it's been working really nicely in the States." But if you had seen France go crazy first, you might know in your heart of hearts that Roth had written a great book that had tremendous commercial potential and would be recognized as a masterpiece. But the French just went crazy critically and popularly, and then the Germans, and then the Brits, and then the Italians, and this helps your confidence, and makes a very big difference, and it changes the way you can talk to your own market about it. So, there's that aspect. The other thing is, I think, when you represent someone's work, if you're passionate about it, and that passion is sincere, it's conveyed. And it's hard to resist passion.

L.G.: And Roth is one of those authors who bridges commerce and art, I guess, because his books tend to be bestsellers, don't they?

A.W.: Yeah, but that's very recent.

L.G.: Really? Portnoy's Complaint [1969] was huge, wasn't it? I used to know [the late journalist and novelist] John Hersey, and he told a story about going to a cocktail party and Portnoy's Complaint had just come out, and Roth had a hundred-dollar bill coming out of his fly.

A.W.: That's where he kept his wallet.

L.G.: Hersey was very offended by that.

A.W.: Jealous, you mean? Jealous about where he kept his wallet? Or jealous about the fact that it was a hundred and not a ten?

L.G.: Beyond my area of competence to answer.

A.W.: I think that Portnoy was a fluke, and it was a fluke Philip recovered from with tremendous elegance.

L.G.: But this question I asked you before about gamesmanship: Isn't there some kind of way that you agents all have, and perhaps you in particular, of playing one interest off the other to produce the best results for you and your client? Just curious how that works.

A.W.: Um, it's a very small business, there's not that tremendous interest available at any given time, so people are interested competitively in what you have, especially if you're only looking at quality. If you're playing a higher-risk game, being in the business of quality is a fairly low-risk game if you do it right. The high-risk game is the commercial end. It's high-risk for everybody, because if it doesn't work, there's a tremendous loss to be made —a loss of face, a loss of money. With work of quality, if you don't make your money back right away, you will over time anyway. So I think we're the soft and gentle side of the business. We're the affordable shop in the industry. What we're selling is going to earn out sooner or later, anyway.

L.G.: By the way, you're alleged to have said that your job is to get the best deal up front for your client...

A.W.: Front end and back end...

L.G.: And that if your clients earn out their advances and start getting royalties, you feel like you failed.

A.W.: Because it's an accounting nightmare. That was a spot of levity, but with a point.

L.G.: People have written a lot about you as someone who doesn't find fresh new talent, but goes for established talent, which generally already has representation, and then poaching from other agents. And, of course, famously, there's the whole dustup with Martin Amis that earned you the nickname "The Jackal."

A.W.: If we want to represent someone, the fact that they are represented by someone else is not an impediment as far as I'm concerned. Sometimes it's an impediment as far as the writer is concerned, but frequently it isn't. And if —as was the case with Martin Amis— his representation had overlooked a critical flaw in the structure of his business, if that had not happened, we would not be representing him.

L.G.: That was a specific case, but in general?

A.W.: Well, but the same is true in other cases. We were seen as grabbing Rushdie away, grabbing Roth away. But all we're doing is analyzing the business and saying if it's properly done, here's what it looks like, here's where you are. Usually we do it in writing. We present these case studies and we say, look, your business is here and it's done like this, it should be over here and it should be done like that. Here's the case study. Now you don't have to hire us, you can give this to your existing agent, or a lawyer or something like that. And they can go do it, or try to, but that's what we'll do.

L.G.: Did you really call Rushdie [in the 1980s] and say, "When I'm in London, can we have a drink?"-and then fly to London immediately that night?

A.W.: Yep.

L.G.: So that wasn't on paper.

A.W.: But he didn't take us on that first time. But the second time I called him, I was in Karachi [Pakistan], and I said, "I'm coming to London." He said, "Where are you?" I said, "Karachi." He said, "What are you doing in Karachi?" I said, "Representing Benazir Bhutto." I think that's what caught his attention. [Bhutto, who was not yet the prime minister of Pakistan, is the daughter of the late premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Rushdie scathingly satirized both in his 1983 novel, Shame.] (…)

L.G.: Oh, she is? But still, given that the business is so small and your argument that this isn't personal, it's business, several friendships have been torn asunder as a result of some of your activities.

A.W.: I think the friendships you're referring to are no longer torn asunder.

L.G.: Oh, really? What about Martin Amis and Julian Barnes?

A.W.: They are very friendly.

L.G.: Okay, so I'm behind the curve on that.

A.W.: I think that it certainly would be hard for me if we were to have overlooked a key aspect of a writer's business, a writer we represented for a long time, and I think it happens with publishers too, and it happens in marriages: If you live with someone for 30 years, you begin to take that person for granted, and you stop sending your wife flowers and you forget that your wife is beautiful and you don't remember the reasons why you got locked into this marriage, and everything outside the marriage looks attractive, and everything inside the marriage looks unattractive. So one of the keys for us in this business is to constantly churn the soil and look back and look back and look back, and try to represent as though the representation were new. And we actually have a built-in discipline that ensures that we do that. So tomorrow, for instance, Scott Moyers is flying out to San Francisco to meet with McSweeney's [a literary quarterly] and go over all the publications and address our international representation of McSweeney's and [McSweeney's founder] Dave Eggers [author of the critically acclaimed bestselling memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius] and the Believer [a monthly edited by Eggers' wife Vida] and make sure that we understand everything that's going on. And we try to do that with each client. It's like taking a vacation with your spouse, and renewing the affection that the marriage is based on.

L.G.: I read that you got Norman Mailer's attention by telling him that he was basically losing $100,000 a year on his backlist being out of print.

A.W.: Well, his backlist was largely out of print in the U.S., and typically the U.S. representation didn't know where it was around the rest of the world. And I said "if this amount of your backlist is unavailable in the U.S., and you are traditionally published in 12 languages abroad, then take this number of books, assume that if that number is out of print in the U.S., it certainly is out of print abroad, so multiply it by 12, put an arbitrary value on it of, what, $1,000 a year? Per book?" That's not a good picture.

L.G.: Decent amount of alimony for him.

A.W.: Exactly. And that's work that you've done. So if you're not paid for the work that you've already done, and you're only thinking about being paid for the work you have not yet achieved, then something's wrong here. (…)

L.G.: Mailer died last month. And another of your authors died just recently, [critic and novelist] Elizabeth Hardwick [a founder of the New York Review of Books]. Tell me about Norman and tell me about what it was like to work with them and represent them?

A.W.: Oh, Norman was great, and inspiring —very youthful intellectually. Really, he had a kind of teenage exuberance, up to the last month of his life. He was very generous, very unpretentious, very fast mentally. As he got older, I remember sitting in someone's apartment, and Norman was describing to me how he felt. And he said he felt like a slow-motion car crash. The fender was bent, the hubcap had fallen off, the back door was off its hinge, the windshield was cracked, this and that was happening, and then he leaned forward and went like this around his head [Wylie holds his head in his hands], and he said, "But the engine is still working!" That was great. And Lizzie, who we represented for a very long time, was a person of tremendous particular intelligence and discretion and grace. I was very fond of her.

L.G.: How much are you going to miss them?

A.W.: A lot. A lot. But, you know, they live on in their work. And so we have an awful lot of Mailer presence and Hardwick presence and [Susan] Sontag presence and Avedon presence. I mean, they're all around us.

L.G.: So tell me about the internet. I know you were on the record as being quite fond of as a great sort of equalizer, because you can get any book and it's not like Danielle Steele is stacked up in front of Barnes & Noble.

A.W.: I'm in love with Amazon, I have a puppy crush on Amazon....The business model of the chains is that those books that sell in the highest volume get the lion's share of presentation. The business model of Amazon is that all books are presented in one copy. So in the latter universe, quality over time is valued far more highly than in the chain model. I fell in love with it early, and I actually spent a year driving everyone in Europe crazy. I was so in love with it that I rang up [Amazon founder and C.E.O.] Jeff Bezos and said, "You really need to expand your business to Europe, and I'm so keen on this that I'm going to put together a European consortium and deliver the ability to fulfill ordering across Europe." And I spoke to a bunch of publishers -Feltrinelli, Hasner, Gallimard, Bonnier in Sweden, and said, "Would you join a consortium?" And it was too soon. It was naïve. But he's getting there. I mean, it just took 15 years. (…)

L.G.: What about Oprah? She has her book club, and it's not all just commercial bestsellers? You know, she picked Anna Karenina.

A.W.: A Hundred Years of Solitude [by Gabriel Garcia Marquez], The Sound and the Fury [by William Faulkner].

L.G.: A lot of Faulkner books. So are you pro Oprah?

A.W.: I'm pro the selection of those books.

L.G.: You've obviously paid attention to what she's put on her list.

A.W.: Yeah, I think it's wonderful to see Faulkner sell as her selection, to see Faulkner sell 750,000 copies in a month. It was fantastic, it was magnificent. So how can you not support that? That's great.

L.G.: Have you thought of trying to put some of your authors before Oprah? Some of the estates you represent?

A.W.: We don't really have access. I assume that she has figured out how to get what she wants, and I think if she finds someone we represent and puts her magic wand on their work, that would be terrific. You know, this isn't a bestseller business. I mean, it's less true now than it used to be, but we would go for periods of over a year without a book on the bestseller list. Now, for some reason, some of the books we represent sell, but I used to joke that if a book was a bestseller, we needed to resign the representation —because most books that are bestsellers are not particularly good. So imagine my confusion to find that three or four books simultaneously that we represent are on the list. So I have to feel that the list is being adjusted by the dynamics of the trade or something. (…)

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