Super-Agent Andrew Wylie Calls Amazon An “ISIS-Like Distribution Channel”

Andrew Wylie is a major book agent who many in the milquetoast publishing industry call the “jackal.” His fiery pronouncements are much-read in certain circles and his latest one, in a speech given at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors, is a doozy. Wylie, who sees Amazon as a threat to all that is good and holy in the book industry, called the organization “brutal” and equated it with a terrorist organization.

“I believe with the restored health of the publishing industry and having some sense of where this sort of Isis-like distribution channel, Amazon, is going to be buried and in which plot of sand they will be stuck, [publishers] will be able to raise the author’s digital royalty to 40% or 50%,” he said. “Writers will begin to make enough money to live.”

Wylie, who was specifically backing Hachette in the ongoing battle of the bookselling stars, told writers in March that “If you have a choice between the plague and Amazon, pick the plague!”

The problem here is that authors are already making enough money to survive. Authors who make an effort to survive on their ebooks – be they serial producers like the RealmAndSands or lucky ducks like who converted effort, personality, and good writing into an amazing career – the generally accepted notion that mainstream publishers help writer survive is continuing to crumble. In fact, the primary reason most publishers exist – the ability to pay an advance before the writing of a difficult book – is being threatened. As Matthew Yglesias writes:

The final role of the modern book publisher is as a payer of advances. The way the money end of books work is that the person who wrote a book gets paid a royalty on each copy sold — a sum that is generally much less than half the retail price of the book, and dramatically lower than the 70% that Amazon is willing to pay to authors who bypass the publishing incumbents. In addition to royalties, a publisher will typically pay you an advance. The advance is a special kind of loan. When your book first starts selling copies, the royalties you would be owed are kept by the publisher to repay the advance. If you sell a lot of books, you’ll fully repay your advance and start seeing money. If you sell very few books, you’ll never repay your advance and are under no obligation to do so.

My best guess is that this is too pessimistic about the financial logic behind giving advances. It is not, after all, just a loan that you may or may not pay back. An advance is bundled with a royalty agreement in which a majority of the sales revenue is allocated to someone other than the author of the book. In its role as venture capitalist, the publisher is effectively issuing what’s called convertible debt in corporate finance circles — a risky loan that becomes an ownership stake in the project if it succeeds.But what really matters here is that book publishers are not charities. They are for-profit business enterprises. If advances don’t make financial sense, then they will die off regardless of what happens to Amazon. If they do make financial sense, then they will live on as financial products even as the rest of the industry restructures.

Folks like Wylie are important cheerleaders for their industries. The book industry in particular enjoys its firebrands, elevating people who will say goofy stuff to positions of power in order to maintain the confirmation bias necessary to survive in a beleaguered industry. But if Wylie thinks that Amazon is so bad I do encourage him and his cohorts to pull their books. The following will happen: sales will drop, good editors will be laid off, those editors will go entrepreneurial, and a new generation of pro-Amazon writers and readers will fill in the ranks of the fallen. Still, Wylie is willing to go to war.

“The publishing industry, up until now, has cowered and whined and moaned and groaned and given Amazon pretty much everything they want. Now I think that’s going to stop,” he said.

To quote Marco from Tropojë, “Good luck.”