September 30, 2014
Andrew Wylie is backing Authors United. Here’s why that matters
by Alex Shephard
Authors United already boasts over 1,000 authors, but the group isn’t resting on its laurels and it isn’t done growing.
Two weeks after writing a powerful open letter to Amazon’s board and one week after announcing its next target—the group will ask the Department of Justice to investigate Amazon for antitrust violations—Authors United has gained a powerful ally: Andrew Wylie, arguably the most powerful literary agent in the world, told The New York Times‘ David Streitfeld that he has asked every author he represents to sign on. As of yesterday, Wylie had managed to recruit a number of heavyweights; he told Streitfeld that Philip Roth, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul, and Milan Kundera, were among those swayed by his pitch.
Wylie has delivered a series of scathing critiques of Amazon over the past year. Last October, he compared the retailer to Napoleon:
I think that Napoleon was a terrific guy before he started crossing national borders. Over the course of time, his temperament changed, and his behavior was insensitive to the nations he occupied.
Through greed—which it sees differently, as technological development and efficiency for the customer and low price, all that—[Amazon] has walked itself into the position of thinking that it can thrive without the assistance of anyone else. That is megalomania.
In March, he struck again by delivering this eminently quotable piece of advice: “My advice is: you have a choice between the plague and Amazon, pick the plague!” In the same interview, Wylie also said “Amazon is nothing more than a trucking company, a digital truck company…. These are not interesting people, their concept is uninteresting waste of time.” He also slammed Jeff Bezos, saying “Books are less important to him than refrigerators” and Amazon’s efforts to enter the publishing business, which he described as a “publishing program that stands out for its idiocy.” “Nothing that Amazon publishes,” he continued, “is worth reading.”
In May, he struck again when he told a reporter that he is “against Amazon because they are a monopoly, they have the government’s support, and unlike the music business, I think that if you destroy publishing, you destroy culture.” In the same interview Wylie also (rightfully) accused Amazon of pulling the strings in the Department of Justice’s successful prosecution of Apple and five major publishers: “The DoJ was fed by Amazon. They offered documents, evidence, and they had so many lobbyists that the DoJ became Amazon’s toadie.”
Four years ago, Wylie and Amazon were partners. In July of 2010 the superagent launched Odyssey Editions, which produced ebooks of titles written by authors Wylie represents, including works by two of Authors United’s newest members, Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie; Amazon was given exclusive rights for two years. It was a move intended to pressure publishers into providing higher electronic royalties to authors and it certainly got their attention. Macmillan‘s John Sargent said he was “appalled.” Random House went one step further and severed ties with the agent in a statement that derided Wylie’s “decision to sell e-books exclusively to Amazon for titles which are subject to active Random House agreements undermines our longstanding commitments to and investments in our authors.” A month later, Wylie relented. Random House regained electronic rights to many of the titles published by Odyssey Editions and resumed its relationship with Wylie.
The marriage between Odyssey Editions and Amazon was one of convenience: at the time, it was in both parties’ self-interest to strike back at publishers. In a 2013 interview with The New Republic (the “pick the plague” interview), Wylie explained the thinking behind the “stealth operation,” telling Laura Bennett that he partnered with Amazon because he had gotten “nowhere” negotiating with publishers on digital royalties:
“I think the points I was trying to make with Odyssey are pretty clearly correct. If you do not pay a higher e-book royalty than twenty-five percent, writers who can make four times as much per book will go straight to digital. There is a willing distributor called Amazon, and they are on a tear. And if [Amazon] can achieve the cessation of print publishing, and have exclusive control over digital publishing and distribution, they will be happy campers.”
In the same interview, Wylie also briefly delves into Random House’s role in the breakup, telling Bennett that Random House’s decision to cut ties was a “total surprise”: “I should have thought of it, but I hadn’t. I thought I could go out of business. If we were unable to do business with Random House, we could not be effective agents.”
Wylie’s dalliance with Amazon in 2010 suggests that Amazon has also become a threat to agents, who can’t survive if there aren’t publishing houses to negotiate with. In fact, agents may be more dependent on the publishing industry than they ever have been in the past. The Wylie Agency wouldn’t miss a beat if Amazon disappeared from the face of the earth; but if Random House and its ilk were to cease to exist, The Wylie Agency would immediately follow. The Wylie Agency doesn’t need Amazon. The Wylie Agency needs publishers. And it doesn’t just need publishers to be “effective,” it needs them to survive.*
The Odyssey Editions saga shows how much has changed over the past four years. Four years ago, Wylie saw a partnership with Amazon as a means of acquiring greater leverage with publishers: for one powerful agent (at least), the enemy of an enemy could be a friend. Four years ago, an alliance between publishers, authors, and agents would have been unthinkable.
Today, however, it’s a reality. For many, including, it seems Wylie himself, Amazon’s role in U.S. v. Apple was a turning point: both Amazon’s disdain for the industry and its ambition to dominate it became undeniable. But there was no unified opposition to U.S. v. Apple. Apple was ready for a fight, but the publishers weren’t up for it: all five publishers that were implicated settled with the Department of Justice before the case went to court. Apple went it alone, but the deck was stacked against it. Amazon, the “800 lb. gorilla,” had its day in court, but Judge Denise Cote, who presided over the case, refused to take it into account. Amazon’s dominant role in the American book market was essential to the context of U.S. v. Apple—the publishers appeared to see collusion as the only means of fighting back against the company that had come to dominate the industry—but Cote took an especially narrow view of the proceedings. Amazon was essential to the context of U.S. v. Apple—the publishers colluded with one another and with Apple because of it—but it was inessential to the case, at least according to Cote. U.S. v. Apple isn’t over—Apple’s appeal could change everything—but its first act fizzled, partly because the publishers refused to fight and partly because Cote refused to take the crucial context behind the decision to collude seriously.
Publishers were terrified after U.S. v. Apple and Amazon may have seen fear as a window. But the aggressive tactics its employed against Hachette—the most egregious of which was turning Hachette authors into collateral damage by pulling buy buttons from Hachette titles—have backfired. But by putting the screws on Hachette (and, perhaps, by dramatically mismanaging the fallout), Amazon united three factions—publishers, authors, and agents—against it. The bonds holding them together may be circumstantial—there’s no reason to believe it’s going to be lions lying with lambs from here on out—but the fact that there are bonds at all is remarkable, as they represent the fact that mainstream literary culture is gathering together in opposition to Amazon.**
Mainstream literary culture is gathering in opposition because Amazon is opposed to mainstream literary culture. Amazon doesn’t see the value of the work—editing, copyediting, and marketing, to name just a few elements—that go into making the books written by the authors who have joined Authors United possible. And mainstream literary culture is gathering in opposition because Amazon is restricting the spread of ideas. Ursula Le Guin, another new Authors United member (though not a client of Wylie’s) had this to say to David Streitfeld: “We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author.’ Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”
Authors United is in the midst of preparing its third letter, which will allege that Amazon has committed antitrust violations and be addressed to the Department of Justice. That letter, according to Streitfeld is “being written by Barry C. Lynn, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction.” It will be ready next week; whether it will have any effect is anyone’s guess (though I suppose everything that happens next week is anyone’s guess at this point). But even if it doesn’t, a movement is growing: it’s growing larger and it’s growing more powerful, and it’s uniting groups that are normally opposed to one another in opposition to Amazon. And it’s a movement that has Andrew Wylie on its side, and Andrew Wylie’s a pretty good guy to have on your side.
He’s also pretty good with a quote. “It’s very clear to me, and to those I represent, that what Amazon is doing is very detrimental to the publishing industry and the interests of authors,” he told Streitfeld. “If Amazon is not stopped, we are facing the end of literary culture in America.”
*This section of Andre Schiffrin‘s The Business of Books provides an interesting account of the rise of the literary agent from a publisher’s perspective—Schiffrin is especially critical of the level of importance and influence agents had assumed by the late 20th century. The fact that The Business of Books was published in 1999 should be taken into account, but the fact that the analysis is somewhat dated is interesting in and of itself. When Schiffin was writing, agents were Public Enemy No. 1 in the industry, an honorific assumed by Amazon a few short years later. The fact that Amazon was still a young company when The Business of Books was published makes it somewhat dated, but no less essential. For instance, Schriffrin is primarily interested in assessing the impact of the rise of corporate, conglomerate publishing, and corporate, conglomerate publishers have assumed an even greater role over the past 15 years. The fact that Amazon was in its infancy at the time of the book’s publication is fascinating as well: The Business of Books provides a glimpse of the publishing industry at the cusp of a radical transformation: understanding the state of the publishing industry before Amazon rose to prominence is essential to understanding what’s happened since. (H/T Gabriel Snyder, who reminded me of Schiffrin’s memoir when he pointed out a different section in an series of tweets highlighting the various entities that have been blamed for destroying literary culture since 1975. Those tweets also serve as a nice counterpoint to the essay I published about Amazon’s effect on literary culture last week.)
**It’s not quite a united front, however. Hachette has spoken up for itself on occasion, but has largely stayed quiet—Amazon has made considerably more public statements—and the other major publishers have followed suit. (This publisher has spoken out regularly about the dispute, but we’re not exactly comparable with the Big Five.) Of course, silence is an understandable response: Simon & Schuster, MacMillan, and HarperCollins are presumably terrified of doing anything that could possibly invite another antitrust suit, especially if it has to do with Amazon, while Penguin, the last of the five publishers involved in U.S. v. Apple, has since merged with Random House, the only major publishing house not named in the initial antitrust suit. That silence is understandable, but it’s also disappointing, as the publishing part of publishing—the editing, copyediting, marketing etc.—is essential to understanding why Amazon vs. Hachette matters. (More on this in the same essay mentioned in the preceding footnote.)
Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.