Andrew Wylie, ‘The Jackal’ of books: ‘Amazon is like ISIS; it takes no prisoners’

The world’s leading literary agent speaks about Salman Rushdie, Stephen King, Donald Trump and the e-commerce giant

Andrew Wylie
Guillermo Altares

Among the literary giants included under the letter B on Andrew Wylie’s endless client list are Giorgio Bassani, Jorge Luis Borges, Saul Bellow, Paul and Jane Bowles, Joseph Brodsky, William Burroughs and Roberto Bolaño, eight of the 20th century’s most important writers. Under C, one finds Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Italo Calvino and Albert Camus. Andrew Wylie, 74, is the world’s most powerful literary agent. His agency has offices in New York and London, and they employ 50 people. His reputation for ruthlessness in managing his clients’ rights has earned him a nickname in the publishing industry: the Jackal. However, he maintains that his goal is to defend authors whose books are of high literary quality but don’t often sell many copies. He asks the new agents he hires to prioritize the emotions that a book arouses in them, not how well they think it might sell.

Nobody, living or dead, has a list of clients as impressive as Wylie’s, which includes Milan Kundera, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Salman Rushdie, Art Spiegelman, Yasmina Reza, Shakespeare, Orhan Pamuk, Susan Sontag and Louise Glück. The agency represents so many luminaries that Wylie is unable to recall off the top of his head how many Nobel Prize-winning authors he counts as clients.

The interview below took place in Wylie’s hotel suite on Wednesday evening, during the Frankfurt book fair, the most important event of its kind. He is not one to bite his tongue, especially when it comes to Amazon.

Question: How is Salman Rushdie doing?

Answer. [His wounds] were profound, but he’s [also] lost the sight of one eye... He had three serious wounds in his neck. One hand is incapacitated because the nerves in his arm were cut. And he has about 15 more wounds in his chest and torso. So, it was a brutal attack.

Q. Is he still in the hospital?

A. I can’t give any information about his whereabouts. He’s going to live…That’s the more important thing.

Q. Do you think that the attack on Rushdie so many years after Iran issued the fatwa against him means that we’re living at a particularly dangerous time for freedom of expression in the world?

A. I think the attack was probably something that Salman and I have discussed in the past, which was that the principal danger that he faced so many years after the fatwa was imposed is from a random person coming out of nowhere and attacking [him]. So, you can’t protect against that because it’s totally unexpected and illogical. It was like John Lennon’s murder.

Q. You have other authors who also face dangerous situations, for example, Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk.

A. The world is going through a very troubled period. I think nationalism is on the rise, a sort of fundamentalist right is on the rise...From Italy to… throughout Europe, Latin America and the US, where… half the country seems to think that Joe Biden stole the election from Donald Trump. And they admire this man who is not only completely incompetent and a liar and a crook, but just a farce. It’s ridiculous.

Q. What do you think about the fact that Maus by Art Spiegelman, one of your authors, was banned in many schools in the United States, despite being considered a classic around the world?

A. You know, that’s the religious right behaving as they behave. It’s ridiculous. It’s ludicrous. It’s shameful. But it’s a big force in the country now.

Q. You have a lot of non-fiction authors and quite a few journalists on your client list. Is non-fiction a growing genre?

A. It’s a very good time for publishing. Publishers did extremely well during the pandemic because… a lot of people had time on their hands to read, and they were alone at home, so they picked up a book or two. And so, the publishers are doing very well. There is continued consolidation, which I think is brought on by the sort of threat that Amazon presents in negotiating so unreasonably with publishers about their distribution percentage. But still, it’s a healthy business, and I think it will remain so for the foreseeable future. And it’s [true] for [both] fiction and nonfiction.

Q. There are very few Spanish-language authors among your clients. Those you do have – such as Antonio Muñoz Molina and the estates of Roberto Bolaño and Jorge Luis Borges – are very important, but there are fewer works in Spanish than in other languages. Why is that?

A. I don’t speak Spanish, which is a problem. But also, I spent the better part of three years talking to [Spanish literary agent] Carmen Balcells about buying her agency. And we even had an agreement in principle, but she didn’t really want to sell it… so, it didn’t work out. I spent a lot of time in Barcelona on that… and for a while I had an office in Madrid, and it was something that I really wanted to do. But finally, I made the decision that the agency should operate out of two offices, New York and London, and that’s enough. We represent a number of Italian authors… some German authors and a lot of Japanese authors. So, we try to go around the world, but we don’t have a particular goal in any one country to have a dominant position.

Q. Have you considered trying to buy another agency to increase your Hispanic clientele?

A. No.

Q. You are sometimes accused of asking for a lot of money from publishers...

A. We [Wylie’s agency] represent the best writing in fiction and nonfiction that we can identify and come to represent. And most of those people don’t have very much money. And so naturally getting well paid is part of their concern.

Q. Is there a risk that if very large advances are requested, the most important authors will end up at large publishing houses, which could negatively impact bibliodiversity?

A. We frequently, on behalf of our clients, select a lower offer than the best offer that’s available, because the editor and the forecast for a particular publisher is strong and the editor is committed and… likely to stay there. So many people move around from one publishing house to the other … part of what we look at when we submit a book is how long will this editor be there? Is she or he stable in that job? Is the company stable? And so, you have to watch out for that.

Strollers in the aisles between booths at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Strollers in the aisles between booths at the Frankfurt Book Fair.DANIEL ROLAND (AFP)

Q. Did you agree with Stephen King when he said...?

A. I don’t agree with Stephen King about anything.

Q. Not even when he testified this summer at the trial over Penguin Random House’s purchase of Simon & Schuster, which the US Department of Justice denounced and claimed that it endangered author diversity and competition?

A. I thought that was a farce...Stephen King used to be published by Penguin. And he had an agreement with them, probably profit sharing. And then he moved to Scribner, Simon Schuster. Presumably he moved from Penguin [...] because Simon and Schuster agreed to make a better deal for him than Penguin. So, Stephen King is faced with the possibility of Penguin Random House taking over Simon Schuster. The possibility that he’ll be back in the fold, with a company that he had left before for better terms. For Stephen King to testify against the acquisition of Simon Schuster by Penguin Random House on the basis that competition will be reduced and authors will be paid less is ridiculous. It’s like Warren Buffett complaining about the tax code in the United States. You know, it’s just irrelevant. And the mistake the Department of Justice made was they were talking about the business as though the top 1% of authors should be considered as the sort of median author in the publishing business. But these people like Stephen King and Danielle Steel and John Grisham, they’re completely irrelevant to the business. They’re outliers. And to construct a legal case based on their concerns and say [....] competition will be reduced. So poor Danielle Steel will get paid less than $5 million a book or $10 million a book or whatever the hell they pay her. It’s garbage. So, it doesn’t matter to me. That is what I said to the judge when I testified.

Q. You also testified at that trial?

A. I did. I testified [in favor of] the acquisition. And I said to the judge, the argument you are making about the publishing industry is the equivalent [of] if you were… structuring your tax plan around Warren Buffett and Elon Musk.

Q. Do you think Amazon’s case is different?

A. Amazon is just horrible. But they are 40% of the business or something. Amazon is more interested in selling a refrigerator than they are in selling a book because they make more money on the refrigerator. So, they treat books like small refrigerators. The idea originally was good because each book was displayed in a single copy online. But they have become corrupted by the search for profits and higher profitability and higher margins. And they don’t care about publishing. They’d rather sell refrigerators. At one point, I was asked what I thought about Amazon, and I said they behaved like ISIS. Unfortunately, they’ve lasted longer than ISIS, but their behavior continues to be built on that model, in my opinion.

Q. How so?

A. [Their model is based on] bullying, killing, taking no prisoners, caring about nothing, having no principles, expansion, expansion, power, power, you know.

Q. Do you think we are living in a particularly difficult era for defending authors’ rights?

A. The agency that I run is very particular and [it’s] in one part of the business; it’s not like the business Stephen King is in. It’s not like the business Danielle Steele is in. It’s not like what they do. And I’m not interested in what they do. What interests me is high quality rather than mass appeal. The authors who sell a lot of copies are, to my mind, unreadable… I can’t read these things. I’d rather do another job. But what I want to do is read books that are interesting and well-written, and their sales are lower than the sales of trash.

Q. How did Shakespeare become part of your client list? I thought his works were in the public domain.

A. We have the rights of a particular edition, which is the first folio [Shakespeare’s first written collection of 36 plays, published in 1623, seven years after his death] …. It’s kind of a long story. I was advising the Royal Shakespeare Company. And they had their logo, which was a trademark on the pink penguin Shakespeares, and they were receiving a nominal royalty, 1% or 2% at the most. And I said to them, ‘Look, effectively, your trademark is worth a lot more than that. So, let’s hire a brilliant Shakespeare scholar. Let’s find what hasn’t been done in the presentation of Shakespeare’s work. Let’s put the RC logo on it. And with that trademark, let’s get back the royalties for Shakespeare that he was deprived of because he didn’t handle his business like Walt Disney.’

Q. You have been coming to the Frankfurt Book Fair for almost 40 years. Do you think much has changed in the age of the internet and teleconferencing?

A. Not much has changed, in my opinion. I absolutely love it. It’s like the best vacation in the year for me. And I love seeing the publishers and the number of conversations that come out of the book fair that are constructive and lead to other things that are very good and interesting to me. It’s amazing. I mean, in the last 48 hours, I’ve done so many things that are so interesting and significant to me and for our agency and frankly, for publishing. You can’t replicate it…I’m not very interested in remote work. I like people to come into the office and discuss issues face to face rather than on Zoom. And Frankfurt…sort of takes everyone off Zoom and puts them in the room together. And you talk and you get a multiplicity of ideas.

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