An international agent argues for a global approach to selling serious literature.
By Andrew Wylie
Sunday, May 9, 2004; Page BW13
(Part of an occasional series on the state of
When I first approached the publishing world, looking for a job as an editor in 1979, I assumed that because I'd been a student of literature, and my father a book editor for 20 years, I would intuit the rules of the game and land a job without difficulty. In one interview, I was asked: "What have you read recently?" "Thucydides," I replied. "How about James Michener? Or James Clavell?" the editor said. Clearly, I was not qualified for the job.
I poked around. The question on my mind was "How can I read what I want and make a living?" Finally someone recommended that I become an agent. But one agency wanted me to have a law degree. Another wanted me to work in its mailroom. Eventually I rented a desk in the hallway of an agency owned by a man who had quarreled with his former employers and, in the ensuing legalities, had been deprived of the right to associate his name with the company. This man provided me with an introduction to the craft of negotiation.
After two years tutelage, I struck out on my own. I'd decided that I would read only the books that were of interest to me -- period. I still didn't know whether it would be possible to build a business on that basis alone, but I was determined to try.
The first author I wanted to represent was I.F. Stone. I'd read an interesting essay he'd written on the trial of Socrates, so I rang him up and arranged to visit him straight away. The next day, we were standing in line at a cafeteria he frequented near his house in D.C. "The most important thing," I assured him, "is to get paid. If you get $100,000, the publisher will print a lot of copies and will make sure the bookstores put your book in the front of the stores. If you're paid less, they'll print fewer copies, and you'll end up spine-out in the back of the store. Thirty percent of book-buying is impulse buying, so you need to be in piles near the front of the store, competing with Danielle Steel. Why should the worst writers have the best deals? If enough people are given a chance to find you, you'll be a bestseller." I think Izzy let me be his agent in order to get me to leave town.
So I had my first client. I went to see his publisher. His editor told me he'd been Izzy Stone's secretary years before; he'd even carried out Izzy's garbage. I sensed I'd found the right person. But when I told him about the book I was trying to sell, The Trial of Socrates, he said, "Andrew, this is the Reagan era. No one knows who Socrates was, and no one cares about Izzy." I said, "I'm sure you're right. So will you revert the rights to his backlist?" (Some of Stone's previous books were out-of-print, others had been selling only modestly.) The editor agreed.
The Trial of Socrates, accompanied by Stone's backlist, was sold to Little, Brown for $105,000 -- at the time, a fairly strong advance. It became a bestseller, and sales of Stone's earlier works were lively. I'd learned two things: It's okay to ignore the prevailing climate and follow your interests; and, or rather, but: Every time you must be paid.
Building a Business
In three years, I built a list of some 30 authors. I was not earning much money, which meant that when I made multiple submissions, I carried manuscripts first to the copy shop and then by foot to publishers. Few editors wanted to see me, so I made friends with the receptionists: They became my allies and fed the submissions into the right editorial hands. I had what I thought were some good clients, but their books were not selling for high advances. Maybe, I thought, these writers would do better outside the United States, where there might be a keener appetite for quality.
This strategy meant, among other things, making the most of a client's backlist and developing authority internationally. In the mid 1980s, the publishing world was divided generally between frontlist-driven and backlist-driven operations. The frontlist business sold new works, took higher risks, hoping to strike hot commodities. The backlist business relied on the ongoing sales of works that had been published long before. Of the two, the backlist houses were building the greatest asset value over time, though they did not always generate the strongest cash flow. But this was the time of the rise of the chains, initially in mall stores, and, to accommodate them, publishers were printing larger and larger numbers of popular or "downmarket" frontlist titles. (In 1984, when Iacocca sold its millionth copy in hardcover, that was front-page news; a few years later, a book selling a million copies in hardcover became a monthly occurrence.)
Sales of books multiplied ferociously; the influence of the chains grew; publishers placed a higher emphasis on feeding the appetite of the chain mall stores than that of their high street branches. The business was swinging hard downmarket, towards popular fiction and nonfiction. Bigger companies were needed to support the higher risk involved as authors demanded higher advances and print-runs soared; smaller publishers, largely sidelined by the chains, suffered and were swallowed up. But then, as smaller houses were integrated into larger conglomerates, the conglomerates gained greater negotiating strength with the chains. And now they wanted their backlists serviced. So the superstores were born and developed for this purpose. Sales continued to rise, but so did returns. (The book business is one of very few retail industries that takes back its products if stores can't sell them.) Editors became caught up in a competitive fever as their companies pushed for profitability. They might have been paid like messengers, but they spoke and thought like bankers. It was a long way from Yoknapatawpha County.
The authors with whom I wanted to work did not fit in with this new downmarket profile. They were writers whose new book alone would support neither them nor the agency that represented them. So either I had to blink and, like everyone else in the business, represent those who would sell large numbers of copies to chain stores; or I had to stick to my original plan and represent only those whose work I wanted to read. But if I were to choose the latter, I would have to sell their work hard, always combining backlist with frontlist; and I would have to sell these books worldwide, not simply in the United States. In 1986, I sold half my business to a London agency that sold directly to foreign publishers. And then I hired an assistant, and things began to change.
The Satanic Verses
By 1988, the agency in which I now held a 50 percent interest had grown rapidly and we represented Salman Rushdie, who had completed 100 pages of a new novel called The Satanic Verses. Rushdie's books had sold well in England -- between 100,000 and 200,000 copies each -- and had been very well received around the world. But he had not done well in the United States, where fewer than 20,000 copies of Midnight's Children and Shame had been sold. As I saw it, the job was to get a company with offices in both London and New York to base their estimate of the book's potential on what they knew they could sell in the U.K.
To do that, we would start in Italy. There Rushdie's previous work had sold well, but he had not been paid author's advances that were in proportion to his sales; so if we could increase his advance markedly and place him with a stronger publisher, good would come of it. The same potential existed in Germany. So the first two sales of the book were made to Mondadori and Kiepenheuer. His previous publishers complained heavily, which meant that when I returned to New York, there was a high level of interest in the book. We then submitted it to American houses that had no partners in London, and in London to houses that had no partners in New York. Those submissions produced a maximum price, which we gave to publishers with offices in both places. We told them that we were looking to meet those combined advances with a world-English language offer. Penguin prevailed. The book's first printing in the United States was 75,000 copies. We had achieved what we wanted.
The agency grew, and we were able to give credibility to younger writers by not compromising the quality of the work we represented. And because of our writers' reputations, we gained authority in foreign markets and were able to effect improvements for writers of note whose backlists had been neglected or undervalued -- Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, John Cheever, Alessandro Baricco, W.G. Sebald, Saul Bellow, Orhan Pamuk, Philip Roth, Oliver Sacks, Norman Mailer, Martin Amis, Roberto Calasso, Kenzaburo Oe, John Edgar Wideman, Czeslaw Milosz, Susan Sontag and many others.
I bought out my British partners, and in 1996 opened my own office in London. It took five years to make that work, because we had no backlog of contracts -- an agency's equivalent of a backlist. Beginning in England, we moved into the field of history and found that British historians who had done well in Europe had been piteously undersold in the United States; it was easy enough to correct now that we controlled both markets. Soon Tony Judt, Mark Mazower, Richard Evans, Ian Kershaw, Niall Ferguson, and other British historians were names to conjure with in the United States and internationally.
The next step is American history: Why is it that a country whose culture and products are emulated or disdained internationally finds itself in the curious position of having one product it absolutely cannot export: the story of its own history? American historians are the nation's conscience, and for those who would better understand this lumbering elephant in the international china shop, I'd suggest that they read something by John Demos, Garry Wills, Jill Lepore, Gordon Wood, James Merrell, or James McPherson, and gain an understanding of a curious country that so fascinates and bedevils the world.
The Marketing of Literary Authors
The world of publishing is broad and various, filled on the whole with people who are intellectually curious, readers and verbal adepts disproportionately passionate about their arduous calling. Literary authors, historians of quality, sublime poets, good books: These are important because they educate us, they uplift us, they matter. Also, they are good business because they sell over time; and the longer and more broadly they sell, the lower the risk for the publisher, the higher the return, the more valuable the property for all involved.
Thirty-one years after the publication of The Great Gatsby, 16 years after the publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls -- but only one year before the first publication of Calvino's Il Barone rampante and Faulkner's The Town -- in 1956, in the United States, the bestselling writer by far was Grace Metalious. Her name is now barely known. She wrote a book called Peyton Place, which is badly written, out of style, out of date, out of print, valueless. Her publisher has disappeared.
The publishers of Calvino, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner abide. Who made the better investment? •
Andrew Wylie is president of the Wylie Agency, a literary agency in New York and London.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
A May 9 Book World column incorrectly said that "Peyton Place" is out of print. The book is available from Northeastern University Press.