Appreciating Andrew Wylie, Evil Bohemian Jackal

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A little less than three years ago, Jeff Bezos of Amazon became the human face of the much-anticipated e-book revolution with the launch of the Kindle. The Kindle's launch was big news, but big sales did not follow, and the book industry gradually realized that software, not hardware, was the key to popular acceptance of digital reading. A complex equation of factors -- format, presentation, compatibility, pricing, DRM, rights and royalties -- would have to fall into place before the book publishing industry could revolutionize itself. Last week a well-known literary agent named Andrew Wylie made a big move to slash through the confusion and establish a new approach to e-book publishing. The reaction from industry insiders was swift and severe. Andrew Wylie is now the human face of the e-book revolution.

Many of the articles linked above vilify Wylie, for one big reason: his partnership with Amazon cuts traditional book publishers completely out of the equation. Wylie's company is a literary agency -- they represent writers directly, for a standard (usually 15%) agency fee. In the new arrangement, Wylie's own newly formed company Odyssey Editions will publish books directly with Amazon, using the Kindle format (which can be read not only on a Kindle device but also on computers, iPhones, Droid phones, etc.). There are exactly two parties in this venture: the literary agent (Wylie) and the bookseller (Amazon). The publisher has no place. No Random House, no Penguin, no Macmillan, no Simon & Schuster. Just an author, a store ... and, hopefully, a reader with money to spend. That's how the new system works.

This ultra-simple arrangement works for Odyssey Editions only because these are backlist titles -- classics like Lolita, Junky, London Fields, Portnoy's Complaint and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, selected from among Wylie's awesome list of clients. Backlist titles don't need to be edited and marketed, and the Odyssey Editions formula includes no capability to develop new authors and new books. Still, it's a big threat to the status quo (Random House and Macmillan have responded aggressively). Somebody's even been running a popular fake twitter account, @EvilWylie. The furor hasn't made the evening news, but absolutely everybody in the book biz has been buzzing about it, and it's hard for non-aligned book enthusiasts to know what to think.

Some of the reactions from booksellers and publishers are over the top. The MobyLives blog, representing the indie publisher Melville House, calls Amazon "satanic" and refers with approval to a bookstore in Oxford, Mississippi that has put up a window display protesting "Wylie World". Well, we know why publishers don't like Odyssey Editions, and we know why bookstores don't like Amazon. But what should readers and book lovers think?

I can't help but find Andrew Wylie's move exciting. It doesn't hurt his image that he apparently acquired the nickname "the Jackal" years ago after stealing a high-profile client from another agent. There are undoubtedly many, many others in the publishing industry who can only wildly dream that they will someday have a nickname like "the Jackal". There are far more ostriches, aardvarks and lemmings than jackals in the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan.

I also have a soft spot for Andrew Wylie because of his background in the downtown New York City art/punk scene. He certainly has good taste in literary friends: the photo at the top of this page shows him in the early 1970s (he's the one in front, with the beret) with Patti Smith, rock writer Victor Bockris and Warhol scenester/poet Gerard Malagna. This jackal has remarkably bohemian tastes.

But the 1970s are over, the future is upon us, and the best thing Andrew Wylie has done this week is plant a big loud ringing alarm clock under the pillows of many book publishing executives. Book lovers want e-book platforms we actually like, we want industry visionaries with better literary instincts and better sense of style than clunky Jeff Bezos to lead the way, and we don't really care if the electronic reading revolution (if it ever gets here) messes up Macmillan or Random House's spreadsheets. It's "genius" executives at publishing firms like Macmillan and Random House that have made us suffer for decades with ridiculous practices like hardcover-only publishing. It's hard to believe that anything Andrew Wylie instigates will ever be more destructive to the reading experience and more insensitive to consumer desires than hardcover-only publishing.

Odyssey Editions may or may not prove to be a big deal (Penguin chief John Makinson is refreshingly blase about it), but it definitely bears close watching, and I expect I'll be posting updates about this latest wrinkle in e-book publishing soon.

11 Responses to "Appreciating Andrew Wylie, Evil Bohemian Jackal"

by Mayowa on

This is spot on Levi.

I do think Wylie's moves are more dangerous than a loud alarm clock. They're more like cooked grenades stuffed down publisher's pants. To me the great impact is that everyone else in the industry can see now see how to cut out publishers. This is the largest crack in the dam yet and the flood cannot be far behind unless something big changes.

by Dan on

If you want your book to be published as a 'real' book and not an eBook, you still need a publisher. Given the failure of eBooks to find a big market, I can't see books and publishers going away any time soon. (sounds a little like the death of painting and the death of the novel)

Wylie is evil incarnate; in other words, a great agent to his writers. I wish he were mine.

by Claudia on

My impression of the publishing world is that what it takes to succeed with ebooks is similar to what it takes to succeed with printed books: a decent promotion budget and enough "cultural capital" to get reviewed in the most popular newspapers and journals. Having been such a reputable literary agent, Andrew Wylie has both resources of promotion at his fingertips. But from looking at his website, Odyssey Editions, he's also creating a unique fingerprint: the genre of the "modern classic." He's publishing the top contemporary authors whom he believes will be canonized (for centuries to come, maybe...). Dan, you want him as your agent and I want him as my publisher. Maybe we can share him:).

I don't get it. Agents represent their clients to publishers and do the negotiating for which they get to keep a percentage of what the publisher pays the authors.

So how does this Wylie fellow own digital rights? The authors retain those. Are these authors or author estates somehow signing over the ownership of electronic rights to Wylie?

That is not what an agent does.

Isn't Wylie the most expendable sort of middle man? Even more expendable than a publisher? This makes little sense. You can make a Kindle edition with several button clicks in about ten minutes time. Any author can do this during his or her coffee break. What on earth would an agent have to do with publishing an ebook? I just boggles my mind. 2 + 2 still equals 4, right?

by Claudia on

Alessandro, I suspect that the process of ebook publication is the same, but the result depends on
who publishes the ebook, their cultural weight and their publicity budget. If an unknown author publishes his or her novel on amazon kindle they may get, at best, a few readers. There are literally tens of thousands of such examples. If Wylie publishes an ebook and invests a decent publicity budget into it, that book gets reviewed and disseminated in the entire media and publicity machine of the publishing industry. The result is, potentially, hundreds of thousands of readers. 2+2=4 only in the technical process by which an ebook is posted on the internet. That part of the process is, of course, very simple. But how (and how well) it gets disseminated on the internet to readers is not at all an egalitarian process.

Claudia, I understand your point, but I suspect that any one of Wylie's clients could work directly with Amazon and get exactly the same results as with Wylie's help. And at any rate, aren't we talking about this Wylie fellow simply turning into another publisher. All the things you list as being beneficial about what Wylie will do are simply things that a publisher does. A middle man is always in the middle.

by Levi Asher on

I think I see it the way Claudia does. One middle man with industry expertise can be very useful to an author. The question is whether one -- an agent/publisher -- can do it all, or whether the roles ought to be separate. I just don't see how authors are going to get the marketing/production/editorial help they need by going directly to Amazon. Not in the real world, anyway.

What if they get the marketing/production/editorial help from Amazon?

by Levi Asher on

I don't see that happening. Amazon is not in the business of giving individual attention to anyone.

Your literary agent is like your lawyer, in that his or her whole purpose is to know, understand and help you, based on your distinct and unique needs. It's not a job that can be done by applying a template. If Amazon offers any marketing services to self-publishers, I bet these services are as empty and useless as those offered by companies like XLibris and AuthorHouse. Sure, it's possible to succeed with a self-published book, because in book publishing anything is possible. But I wouldn't waste my money on any marketing/representation services that aren't based on a high degree of individual attention. That's what a good agent does.

Yeah, I sort of see your point, Levi. But not totally. I am all too familiar with the personal attention of agents and take a somewhat more cynical view of them than you do. There certainly are some decent agents. There's no such thing as a good one. But there are some decent ones.

I'm not really thinking about self-publishing though. What I'm thinking about is Amazon becoming a real publisher, with editors and promotion people. Basically Stephen King with his own guy at Amazon functioning as an editor/representative that would do everything his agent might do now - and his publishers.

Isn't it logical to assume that this is where Amazon is going? In fact, I would buy their stock on that assumption. Lots of it.

I wouldn't be surprised if this Wylie person ended up working for Amazon.

by Gregoryno6 on

I have to agree with your swipe at publishers. And here in Australia the problem is actually worse thanks to parallel importing restrictions. Generally speaking, publishing executives deserve to spend some time staked out under the desert sun with ants nibbling on their privates.
That said, the deal Mr Wylie has struck isn't necessarily the best for the writers. It sounds as if he's isolating his clients from hard-copy readers, and they will continue to be the majority for a good while yet.

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