November 11, 2014
Keith Gessen, writer and author of All the Sad Young Literary Men, has a long article in the December issue of Vanity Fair on the ongoing hostilities between Amazon and Hachette. Essentially it’s a timely primer on how the retailer’s relationship with publishers sank to its current low, but it is worth reading for literary agent Andrew Wylie’s thoughts on the matter alone:
The issues at the heart of the conflict are both margin and price, according to Wylie. Publishers have been slow to recognize the danger of percentage creep, he told me. “There was a European publisher in here recently who proudly sat on that sofa and said, ‘I’ve worked everything out with Amazon. I’ve given them 45 percent.’ I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘But they wanted 50 percent.’ ” The European publisher thought he had won. Wylie stared incredulously at the memory of this encounter. “He’s a moron!”
Losing the fight over margins would be an immediate blow to the publishers’ profits, but losing control over pricing could be fatal. “If Amazon succeeds,” said Wylie, “they will lower the retail price—$9.99, $6.99, $3.99, $1.99. And instead of making $4 on your hardcover, you’ll be making 10 cents a copy on all editions. And, Keith, you will not be able to afford to write a book.… No one, unless they have inherited $50 million, will be able to afford to write a serious work of history, of poetry, of biography, a novel—anything. The stakes are Western culture.”
Western culture I could take or leave, but the part about me sent a chill down my spine. This is not what you want to hear from your literary agent. Surely we’ll think of something, I said to Wylie, if Amazon does win?
Wylie was not in the mood for a pep talk.
If you don’t have the strength to wade through the whole thing (and who can blame you?), Gessen discussed the piece with Leonard Lopate on WNYC today:
But for more Wylisms, the man himself was in Toronto recently and Mike Doherty interviewed him for the National Post:
Wylie readily admits, in his Massachusetts drawl, that he was once a big supporter of [Amazon], going so far as to call up CEO and founder Jeff Bezos and offer to help him expand into Europe. He praised the idea that, unlike in a bookstore, backlist and literary titles could be on equal footing with bestsellers — the industry dependence on which he calls a “coked-up, crazy, wild weekend-in-Vegas approach to publishing.” Amazon’s dedication to the long tail, he thought, was key, but then with the introduction of the Kindle, he says, “the dark side of their intention began to be visible.”
Wylie was in town to deliver the keynote address at the International Festival of Authors.