I wonder if any of the many literary greats represented by Andrew Wylie ever considered using his story. The raw material is certainly worthy: Wylie, whose father was a high-level editor at Houghton Mifflin, grew up a privileged young scalawag, attending St. Paul’s School, from which he was dismissed, and Harvard, where he insulted one of his thesis advisers, and eventually moved to New York in the 1970s to become a poet and interviewer. Once there, he fell in with Andy Warhol’s crowd, behaved in various ways like a wild man and then, in 1980 and in need of steadier work, began transforming himself into a hugely successful literary agent. Over the years, the Wylie Agency’s clients have included Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Martin Amis and John Updike. (All of whose estates, along with those of other luminaries like Borges and Calvino, are now represented by the agency.) Wylie’s roster of contemporary authors includes Sally Rooney, Salman Rushdie and Karl Ove Knausgaard among its blue-chip multitude. (Several New York Times journalists are also represented by Wylie.) Such voracious acquisition of clients at one point led to Wylie’s being called the Jackal, presumably for his ruthless pursuit of other agents’ authors. That fearsome reputation, along with actual paradigm-shifting changes in his approach to agenting (namely his focus on exploiting the value of authors’ backlists and his determination that publishers pay fat advances for work of high literary quality — even if it might not sell in the short term), have also been factors in making Wylie, who is 76 and a famously forthright speaker, a legendary figure in the publishing world. “I thought, Well, I wonder if you can build a business based exclusively on what you want to read,” he says, understatedly. “That led me to understand, I think correctly, that best sellers were overvalued and works that endured forever were undervalued.”
How do you understand the contradiction that the crappy books that sell so well are what allows for the publishers to pay big advances to your writers? You need the crappy stuff to do well, right? That is the publishers’ view.
What’s your view? Different.
Explain the difference. One, the goal of the people we represent is not to be Beyoncé. It’s not directly connected to popularity. Let’s say you’re inviting some people to your house for dinner. Do you want everyone to arrive? Or do you want a select number of intelligent people who are amusing and understand what you’re talking about? The latter, I think. There are some people I don’t want to have join the dinner. They deserve to live, but they don’t need to come to my house for supper.
Are there ever instances in your work where advocating for the writer is at cross purposes with things that might lead to their books being more widely read? An example might be, I don’t know, the writer wants a particular cover or title, but the publisher says other ones would be better for sales. No disrespect intended for my brilliant colleagues in the business, but usually what happens is the publisher puts forward a ghastly and inappropriate cover design. Then you say: “Thank you, that’s ghastly and inappropriate. Could you either hire someone with a brain or attempt to redesign?” The response in every single case for 40 years has been, We’ve shown it all around the house, and everybody loves it. The number of times I’ve heard that is obscene. They always love the measly result of their ineffectual aspirations. The author sometimes will say, “Jesus, Andrew, what do you think of this?” And I say, “It’s transparently ugly, it has nothing to do with the book, so I think we should ask them to try again.”
What’s an example of when a publisher or someone else in the business disagreed with you and they turned out to be right? I don’t think that’s ever happened.
There must be something. That’s what living a charmed life is all about.
Denial? Selective memory? Having things happen the way you intended to have them happen.
My sense is that the publishing world used to be run and populated largely by people who liked books and were interested in literature, and now there’s a cohort of people who work in publishing who might be interested in data analytics, and they’re paying attention to spreadsheets and online search terms. Do you find yourself having to communicate differently with those people? I think that a number of publishing companies have brought in businesspeople to help them in a futile effort to become more distinctly profitable. But it’s comical, because frequently these people don’t understand the difference between selling a widget and selling a good novel. The advantage that they bring to the publishing company is counteracted by the hilarious errors of judgment they make because they don’t know what they’re selling. It tends to be true that the best publishers are people who read books and whose primary understanding of the business comes from what they’ve read rather than from Harvard Business School.
Do you have an example of those comical errors? The answer is yes, I do, but I’m not talking about them.
Have publishers gotten any better over time at selling your writers’ books? I’m not so sure. The sequence, as I see it, is this: In the old days — ’80s, ’90s — there was always a discussion about the quantity of print advertising that would be attached to the publication of the book. Then publishers began to declare, and then decisively declared, that print advertising doesn’t sell books. There’s no logic to it. Why should movies, television shows be advertised in print if that didn’t produce a favorable result? What they should have been saying, if they were telling the truth, which sometimes publishers avoid, is that the cost of, say, a full-page ad in The New York Times is not directly recoverable from the number of copies of books sold from that specific ad. What that means is, it’s disadvantageous to the publisher’s balance sheet. Though without question it is advantageous to the author’s balance sheet, because the author doesn’t have to pay for the ad. Now publishers have declared, in their opinion sincerely, that the only way to sell books is through social media and stuff like that. I have gone to a number of meetings with astute groups of people employed in the publishing business who have talked like someone from a very remote island speaking 50 years in the future — it’s like science fiction. They say, we do this, we do that, but it’s not directly measurable. I find myself taking exception to their estimation of their social media skills and the effect those skills have on the sale of a book. I don’t buy it.
I’ll ask in a different way: Has the status of serious writers changed in the country? I think that’s the wrong way to look at it.
What’s the right way? What are your goals?
To matter in the culture? No. Absolutely not. Who gives a [expletive]? You want to matter in this culture? Not me.
So what should a writer’s goals be? Just on the quality of the work. The kind of ineffable beauty of something extremely well expressed.
Doesn’t the real or perceived commercial status of quality literature have bearing on the deals that you’re able to negotiate for your writers? Well, we try to apply excessive charm in the course of negotiation.
Says “the Jackal.” Some people read our attempts at charm as being disingenuous, but they’re wrong.
I understand the impulse. If you’re a good interviewer, as you are, you have to take yourself out of it and insert yourself in the person you are conversing with so what they have to say becomes powerfully significant in the course of the conversation. What if your entire life is based on entering the other person’s perspective? We represent about 1,500 writers. It’s a field of dreams. You’ve abandoned yourself, which is of no interest, it’s tedious, and you enter into their perspective and it’s totally enriching.
I find that line of thinking both intriguing and hard to understand. Well, it could be logically seen as a deficiency. You got nothing to offer, so you crawl inside the other guy’s suit.
Probably you would agree that by and large literature doesn’t tend to depict hollow people as fulfilled or even positively. Well, isn’t “Don Quixote” all about that? There are plenty of hollow figures.
Is that hollowness there when you interact with your family? My family tends to think that I’m somewhat overbearing. But that’s certainly their problem, not mine.
Have you ever thought about writing an autobiography? No, no, no. First of all, it wouldn’t be very interesting, and second of all, our relationship to the people we work for is like a psychiatrist’s. You do not spill the beans. If I spilled the beans, many people would have diarrhea.
For a yutz like me, a business rube, what’s some advice about how to win a negotiation? If you believe in what you’re selling, to a certain extent that belief is infectious. If you’re just trying to make money, that’s not very convincing. But if you really think you have in your hands a work of genius, that’s quite persuasive. Especially if you also represent a number of people who have been generally accepted to be geniuses. If you represent no one of any quality and you come forward saying this is a work of genius, perhaps the reception of that observation is tempered. But if you represent Orhan Pamuk and Sally Rooney and Salman Rushdie and Saul Bellow, Italo Calvino and Borges and Naipaul and Nabokov, and you say this is a work of genius, the reaction is, well, they might know what they’re talking about, because look at the context. The stronger the context, the more persuasive the offer.
Is there anything, in a longer-term, strategic way, that you find yourself puzzling over in the way that maybe 15 years ago you were thinking about authors’ digital rights? Not really. The battles have remained quite the same for a number of years. It’s all about the exaggerated favor that accrues to the distribution piece. I mean, they’re just a bunch of messengers. You don’t have to kowtow to Amazon. You don’t. And yet, “Well, how do we not?”
What’s the answer to that? It’s like your dinner party: You want everyone to come? The room is going to be packed. Or do you want to just have fewer but better people?
But publishers do want everyone to come, right? Yeah. They’re greedy. The best-seller list is an example of success and achieving the broadest possible readership. But who’s reading you? A bunch of people with three heads and no schooling. You want to spend the day with these people? Not me, thank you.
We’re not supposed to look down our noses at pop culture anymore. Do you think that’s a phony attitude? Is there some defense of cultural elitism that you want to make? Not particularly. I suppose to a great extent I’m just guided by my taste, and that’s probably idiosyncratic and narcissistic of me. I’m not a person who would ever go to Disney World. There are a lot of people who do. I don’t necessarily think that they’re ridiculous. I just don’t share that taste.
I asked you to leave me with a poem and you slipped in a dig. You can’t help yourself! [Laughs.] God, that’s terrible. Apologies. I love broad humanity — just not Disney World.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.
David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. He recently interviewed Alok Vaid-Menon about transgender ordinariness, Joyce Carol Oates about immortality and Robert Downey Jr. about life after Marvel.