March 19, 2014
Andrew Wylie advises you “pick the plague!” over Amazon
by Kirsten Reach
In the middle of a cold, dark week, is there any greater gift than a new interview with Andrew Wylie? The man is tougher, more concise, and more quotable than anyone else in the industry.
Last October, Andrew Wylie gave an interview to Laura Bennett in The New Republic. He said that the industry was acting like Procter and Gamble when “it’s Hermès.”
But his harshest lines were reserved for Amazon Publishing. He tried a Kindle in the back of a cab in Rome, couldn’t read it in the dim light, and thought, “fuck this.” He compared Amazon to Napoleon, diagnosing the company with a case of greed and megalomania.
What would it take for him to sell a book to Amazon? “If one of my children were kidnapped and they were threatening to throw a child off a bridge and I believed them, I might.”
Last week, AmazonCrossing launched a new German language publishing program with two titles coming in June. What advice does Wylie wish to bestow upon German authors, agents, and publishers about working with Amazon? In three words: Don’t do it. In two: Fuck ’em.
In this week’s interview with Patrick Bahners of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he got right to the point. Maybe everything sounds more harsh in German, but if it were possible to be more blunt than he was with The New Republic, he has been.
Here are rough translations of a dozen lines from the interview:
1) Amazon’s publishing arm is a “publishing program that stands out for its idiocy.”
2) Moreover: “Nothing that Amazon publishes is worth reading.”
3) If what Amazon is doing in Germany is anything like what’s happening in the U.S., Amazon will “operate the most irrelevant publishing company that you can imagine. No even moderately well-known author will get involved with Amazon Publishing, because bookstores will not carry these books. Amazon is not interested in print, only digital. This publishing concept is a dead end.”
4) Bahners countered Wylie’s point about well-known authors with an example from Amazon’s literary imprint little a, which published The Blue Book by AL Kennedy. Surely Kennedy is distinguished and serious about literature? But Bahners should know better than to contradict The Jackal.
“Her name is the only one you know,” Wylie replied. “She was ill-advised to embrace it, and it will hurt her career.” Bahners insisted it sold 8,100 copies within eight months.
Who said that? Amazon?
Then you know that it cannot be true.
The Nielsen [Bookscan] company, which collects the data for the best-seller lists, recorded 830 sales in bookstores in the same period.
This number sounds more realistic.
5) His humor is sharp as a knife. On Amazon’s White Gloves program, Wylie said, “It sounds like loyalty rewards program for a third-rate hotel in Cincinnati.”
6) Asked if he would advise young writers to apply for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, he said, “No, I would advise him to get on a soapbox in Manhattan or Munich and read from his novel. He would achieve a better audience there than with Amazon.”
7) Whenever publishers talk about Amazon, there seems to be some underlying panic. Why? “The negotiation strategies of Amazon are brutal. Amazon has a monopoly and has set out to destroy the trade of printed books. [Publishers] need to resist by all means.”
8) Are Amazon workers in Seattle different from book people in New York? “Amazon is nothing more than a trucking company, a digital truck company…. These are not interesting people, their concept is uninteresting waste of time.”
9) Wylie suggests big publishers should take on the business of distribution, like Feltrinelli in Italy, but allow small bookstores to stay in business. “It would be great if the publishers had the data that Amazon has.”
10) On Jeff Bezos: “Books are less important to him than refrigerators.”
11) Bahners pointed out that Bezos just bought The Washington Post because he said he loved to read the newspaper. Wylie responded, “When Jeff Bezos says, ‘The sky is blue,’ then I pull on my rain coat and take the umbrella when I go out the door. Outside, it’s pouring rain.” (We did warn you this was only roughly translated from German.)
12) In sum: “My advice is: if you have a choice between the plague and Amazon, pick the plague!”
It’s probably only an urban legend that if you work in publishing, and you die, an apparition of Andrew Wylie floats above you in your final moments of consciousness to judge your contributions to the literary canon. Imagine his face floating just above you in the dark, then his lips moving softly to say, “Nothing you published is worth reading.” Or, “Your list was no better than a third-rate hotel in Cincinnati.” Now imagine him saying it in German.
Don’t you feel terrible? It’s OK. He was talking about Jeff Bezos. Also, you’re still alive. Part of the pleasure of these interviews is that the man is a little terrifying, right? It’s lucky The Jackal is on the print side of this battle with Amazon.
Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.