Andrew Wylie has much to say about the book business, but it’s not for the faint of heart. In his keynote address at the International Festival of Authors (and in the Q&A with CBC’s Carol Off that followed), the internationally renowned agent of Martin Amis and Salman Rushie offered up his characteristic zingers, calling Amazon “the equivalent of ISIS,” 50 Shades of Grey “one of the most embarrassing moments in Western culture,” and self-publishing “the aesthetic equivalent of telling everyone who sings in the shower they deserve to be in La Scala.”
Despite the multitude of digital offerings that have been integrated into the publishing industry in recent years, Wylie has little interest in experimenting. His advice to writers? “Write better.” To agents? “Work harder.” To publishers? “Stand firm.”
Here are a few highlights from the event:
On his career
In the ’80s, I went looking for a job as an editor at a publishing house, and I was asked what I was reading, and I said, “Thucydides.” In the meeting, [they said], “How about James Michener?” And I said, “Not going to happen.” They explained to me that if you wanted to be in the publishing business, you had to read the bestseller list. So I looked at the bestseller list and I thought, “Well, if that’s what you have to do to be in this business, then really and truly,” I thought, “Fuck it, I’ll be a banker.” And then I wondered whether – since I wasn’t interested in banking – if it would be possible to just be involved with books that were particularly well written and particularly intelligent – forget the rest of it, most of the bestseller list – and just concentrate on that. I set out to do that, and 35 years later, its possible to say, yes, you can do that.
On the future of Amazon
In fact what’s happening is a continuation of what used to go on with the chains. It is a set of terms dictated by a digital trucking company, and the publishing industry, up until now, has cowered and whined and moaned and groaned and given Amazon pretty much everything they want. Now I think that’s going to stop. I think Hachette, to their great credit, drew a line in the sand and didn’t fold…. The deal that Simon & Schuster cut with Amazon – and no one is allowed to know anything about the deal, and nobody has any idea what it is – but basically, it’s back to the agency model. And, it’s pretty good for authors. And there is a good chance, in my view, that Amazon will be told, “You either do business on our terms, or we’re going to develop other channels of distribution.”
On pulling his digital imprint, Odyssey Editions, from Amazon
[T]he phone was ringing, and it was two senior executives from Amazon. People whose names are known to those who know the company. And I said, “Hello.” And they said, “Hello, Andrew?” And I said, “Yup.” “This is Bill and Joe.” “Hi guys, how are you?” “I think you know how we are!” I said, “Not really, you wanna tell me how you are?” “I think you know how we are, who we are!” I said, “Is this a guessing game, you wanna tell me how you are? How’re we gonna do this?” And he said, “Andrew, do you know how fucking stupid you are?” And I said, “Come again?” He said, “You heard me. Do you know how fucking stupid you are?” And I said, “Well, no, why don’t you tell me.” “Well, we’re going to bring you to court, we’re going to wear you down, and we’re going to put you out of business.” And I said, “Boys, boys, can you hang on a sec, I’m on the other line.” I put them on hold, called my lawyer. He’s a good lawyer, and I said, “I’ve got these two gorillas from Amazon on the phone. You’re better qualified to speak with them than I am, and less emotional.” And I went back on the other line and I said, “Boys, as I said I’m on the other line. You know my lawyer, he’ll complete the conversation, have a nice day.” This was an indication to me of how Amazon liked to conduct business.
On the slush pile
The only unsolicited submission, I believe, that we have taken on, is a book called White Teeth by Zadie Smith… William Maxwell, a legendary editor at The New Yorker taught me this: I was working out my small apartment, and I had two books that I had high hopes for. [I told him] I have these two books and I’ve read 200 pages of one, and now 80 pages of the second one. He said, “What’s the first paragraph of the second book, you want to read it to me?” And I read it to him. And he said, “Huh. What’s the first sentence again?” And I read it to him. “And what’s the title of the book?” And I told him. And he said, “Right.” And I thought, “I’ve just got a lesson in how to read submissions.” You can tell good writing from the first paragraph, and you can tell bad writing from the first paragraph.
On publishing books that matter
You can buy your clothing at K-Mart, or you can buy your clothing at Hermès. You have to decide what you want in life. If you want disposable razors, that’s one way to approach it, or you could buy a razor that might last a little longer. I think what a culture depends on is what is best about a culture. And what a book depends on is what’s best about books. Those are the books that last, those are the books that sustain the industry. Not the sort of high-level bets that are placed on short-term profitability, and is all led by shareholder interest and pressure.