Andrew Wylie’s China Policy; How to Get a Great Biography

Literary agent Andrew Wylie, he of the highbrow client list, fiercely practices the art of the advance. Regularly, Mr. Wylie wins six-digit advances for non-best-selling literary authors. But he’s also known for geographic advances-into England, Spain and Japan-and now it looks like he might be in for a windfall of cultural currency.

At the end of August, the New York Daily News reported a rumor that Mr. Wylie will announce at the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair the opening of a Chinese operation. Mr. Wylie denied the rumor. “We’re changing the way we’re dealing with China, but we’re certainly not opening an office in China,” he told The Observer. “What we are looking at a little bit is rights into China, a small business going into the mainland. We would try to do something in the next 12 to 18 months, and I would have between two and four partners.”

Mr. Wylie is currently in the process of negotiating an agreement for author Jonathan D. Spence, a China expert and Yale University professor who signed with Mr. Wylie this spring. Mr. Spence’s books are currently published all over China, including Taiwan and Hong Kong.

“One of the big triggers [of agreeing to sign with Mr. Wylie] is that I was losing control of all the foreign editions, translations, royalties and so on,” said Mr. Spence. “Somebody would write and say, ‘I’ve just translated such and such a book, and do you mind if I go ahead and ….’ In the old days, I’d say, ‘You can go ahead for now,'” said Mr. Spence. “Now is a good time to standardize with one publisher.”

Mr. Wylie hopes to do just that, bringing all of Mr. Spence’s publications-his backlist spans 13 titles-under one roof. The deal would hit a few major points, not only putting the copyrights in proper order but also guaranteeing very high-caliber translations of Mr. Spence’s work. But perhaps most interesting is a condition concerning politically sensitive material. China, after all, has yet to officially acknowledge the brutality of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Books are regularly amputated.

Under the deal, Mr. Spence’s books would be published whole. As Mr. Spence put it, “[the house] would not cut the books they’d publish, and if there were books that were unpublishable for political reasons, they would wait until they were publishable.” This would affect, for instance, the last sections of The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution 1895-1980 and The Search for Modern China . Those parts, said Mr. Spence, “could be seen as critical of aspects of Deng Xiaoping or Tiananmen, and includes material by dissidents who are now in exile.”

An outpost in the world’s largest emerging market is no small feat. German media conglomerate Bertelsmann A.G. knows this; after years of negotiations, it started a book club in Shanghai in 1994 that now boasts a million members. The book club’s director, Ekkehard Rathgeber, estimated that some 180 million readers lurk among China’s 1.2 billion inhabitants. Right now, though, it’s mostly scientific, medical, technical and business books that Chinese readers want. Trade books come in last.

“Publishers lose, conservatively, $140 million a year in China, and maybe 10 to 15 percent of that is trade-title,” said Nisha Tyree, director of copyright, new technology and anti-piracy for the Association of American Publishers.

Mr. Wylie remains optimistic. “You never can tell,” he said. “I mean, they do have strong literary traditions-Li Po, great poet.” Of the Wylie Agency’s 343 clients, maybe a dozen are published aboveboard in the People’s Republic. Two that came to mind were Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer. But even household names don’t bring in the kind of overseas income that is generated in areas such as Britain or Germany. Fees coming in from China-if they come in at all-are more on par with Eastern Europe right now. A translation fee could hover in the hundreds of dollars. Yet the time has never been better to collect fees and royalties, even if Mr. Wylie and his ilk won’t reap the benefits in his lifetime.

“The Chinese buy an awful lot of trade books, but they pay very little,” said Marcella Berger, the subsidiary-rights director at Simon & Schuster. She named some house authors that have made it over the Great Wall: Mary Higgins Clark, Frank McCourt, Jackie Collins, Stephen Covey and Henry Kissinger. “China is going to take a long time to be a big market,” she said.

Mr. Wylie has been interested in China for a while. Ten years ago, he was sounding out U.S. publishers on the idea of an autobiography of Mr. Deng. Whether or not Mr. Deng had actually signed with Mr. Wylie was another matter. When The Wall Street Journal asked him if he had ever met the Chinese leader, he said, “I forget.”

“China is a very dangerous market,” said Mr. Wylie, adding that he has been there within the last year. “If you invest too much, you can lose your shirt. I don’t think it would be prudent of us to move swiftly, and it would certainly be imprudent of us to move in a sloppy way, so we’re not moving very fast at all.”

It remains to be seen whether he changes his mind by Frankfurt, which kicks off Oct. 13. “For our rights lists, we’re printing a catalogue, and that’s going to be a very big development for us,” said Mr. Wylie. “We have lead titles and then current titles and then the client list. It’s going to be a big, illustrated bound document that we’re printing 1,000 copies of.” He paused. “It’s sure to bankrupt us.”

Fred Alger, a mutual-fund golden boy from the 1960’s, is proving that old adage: first wealth, then respectability. Or so it would seem from the publication this month of One Way Up Wall Street: The Fred Alger Story , by freelance writer Dilip K. Mirchandani. The publisher of the 496-page tome? Fred Alger Management Inc.

“When the company [founded in 1964] had its 30th birthday, my brother [David] suggested that a book should be written about the company so everybody could remember the stories,” said Mr. Alger, from a house in East Hampton, L.I., he and his wife rented for the month of August. “We thought it was a good idea. It’s really meant for members of the company. It didn’t seem appropriate to publish with a mainstream publisher. It really was a casual thought.”

Mr. Alger’s packager, James Charlton Associates, ran off 5,000 copies of the book, which has plenty of photos, including one of Mr. Alger as a baby, Mr. Alger and his chauffeur, the French chateau in the Dordogne valley he used to own and Mr. Alger’s great-grandfather Russell Alger, once a U.S. Senator. The chapter titles tend to be equally homey: “Born a Prince,” “Fearless Fred,” “‘Call Me Fred'” and “S.E.C. Troubles.”

The “S.E.C. Troubles” refers to a time in the late 1980’s when the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated Mr. Alger for misrepresentation in a 1986 advertisement. It charged the firm with filing a misleading registration statement for the Alger Fund. The story got quite a bit of ink, especially in Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal . Mr. Alger settled the administrative action with the S.E.C. in 1990.

“His reputation got tarnished unfairly,” said Mr. Mirchandani, Mr. Alger’s Boswell. “Certain statements were made vis-à-vis the performance statistics of his investment accounts. Basically, a clerical situation that got blown out of hand. The S.E.C. decided to make a case out of it. The S.E.C. was looking to make an example out of someone, as it does. And also the advertising campaign itself was bigger than anything Wall Street had ever seen. He was promoting an investment style, an aggressive-growth-style management which was not in step with the old-style money managers.”

The book’s task, according to Mr. Mirchandani, is to “rebuild the Alger name,” a name that had suffered some indignities ever since the tale of Russell Alger, “a great industrialist, Secretary of War during the Spanish-American War, was eviscerated from the history books.” Said the writer, “In Michigan, the Alger name was bigger than the Ford name.” Fortunately, an Alger family member happened to have a dissertation on hand about Russell Alger that Mr. Mirchandani used as a quick reference.

“He got very enthusiastic about delving into our family,” said Mr. Alger. “It’s interesting. There are not that many American families that go back 150 years. The Rockefellers, the Mellons quot;

Family history must not be worth what it used to be. In 1995, Mr. Alger left his 17th-century New England pedigree on these shores to move to Switzerland. He now resides in Geneva. “I’m not an American citizen anymore,” said Mr. Alger. “I’d prefer to leave behind a company. The company can go on endlessly as long as it keeps attracting smart people. The only thing that would do it in is American inheritance taxes, which is 55 percent.” If he had stayed, he said, “the company might have to be sold to pay inheritance taxes.”

“Fred Alger needed to record for future generations what happened, how he built his company,” said Mr. Mirchandani, who holds a journalism degree from Columbia University and whose previous projects include ghostwriting a book called The Pitch Formula for Success , success stories of insurance salesmen, and directing beer and milk commercials in his native Philippines. “The toughest part was humanizing the business story,” said Mr. Mirchandani. “Fred was a quiet, contemplative, cerebral type of investor.”

The Publishing column can be reached at emanus@observer.com.