John Updike, a Year After His Death, Finally Gets a Literary Agent

John Updike's death in January 2009 marked both the passing of an American literary giant and the end of an era in publishing. For more than 50 years, Updike's exclusive U.S. publisher was Knopf, now a division of Bertelsmann's Random House -- and he sold his writing without a literary agent.Rather than pay an agent the customary 15% commission, Updike saved the money, and granted to Knopf all rights, from foreign sales to the movie and TV versions of his book The Witches of Eastwick. Not that agents didn't try to get his business. And finally, a year after Updike's death, a particularly persistent agent has landed the prize: Andrew Wylie, who's infamous for poaching authors from his competitors.

%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% Updike's literary estate is hardly the first on Andrew Wylie's star-studded client list. Recently, he's been on an acquisition binge, scooping up available (and sometimes unavailable) dead writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, J.G. Ballard, and Roberto Bolaño. With Wylie's help -- and seemingly unbeknownst to Bolaño's former agent, Carmen Balcells -- "lost" Bolaño manuscripts have been found that are ripe for the plucking, with revenue potential from sales to publishers worldwide.

Representing the Dead

Wylie's rationale, as he outlined in a 2007 interview with Condé Nast Portfolio, is simple: "All our representations are representations made in the belief that the people we represent will last and will be published internationally." And if an author, living or dead, old or young, has spotty foreign-rights sales or a haphazard publishing schedule, then Wylie outlines a plan, makes his case, and remains patient, no matter how many times he might be turned down.

Landing Updike, or his estate, was a coup that took Wylie more than a decade, the New York Observer reported. Updike had always declined Wylie's advances, but Updike's widow, Martha, "realized she would need an expert to come in and sort out who owns what of her late husband's work, which rights are ripe for reversion and which contracts need to be renegotiated."

The Publisher and the Widow

But the new relationship has all sorts of complications. Updike's estate has two executors: his widow, and his longtime editor at Knopf, Judith Jones. If Martha Updike approves Wylie's plans but Jones rejects them, the conflict might exacerbate Wylie's headache of sorting through outstanding contracts and analyzing royalty statements.

And there might not even be much Updike for Wylie to represent. Most of Updike's books are still in print in the U.S., the Observer notes, so Knopf still handles domestic and foreign rights. Those rights won't revert to the Updike estate soonUnless Wylie can find and exploit a magic loophole. While it's conceivable that Wylie could persuade international publishers to return the rights to the estate, Knopf would likely have a say in that process.

And a recent Random House letter to agents claimed that it retains digital rights for books published before 1994 -- another complication for Wylie, if he's interested in selling old Updike titles separately.

Challenges for Wylie

But Wylie is one agent who thrives on challenges. If the Library of America wants to add Updike to its list of writers whose work it republishes in handsome hardcover editions -- competing with Knopf's Everyman's Library -- Wylie will find a way to make it happen. If there are film and TV rights to Updike books that Knopf doesn't control, Wylie will sell them.

Still, if representing Updike's estate turns out to cause teeth-gnashing in practice, the no-agent arrangement with Knopf might be replaced by one with great costs for all involved -- even for the tenacious Wylie.
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