After Years of Pursuit, Wylie Signs Updike

updikecollage After Years of Pursuit, Wylie Signs UpdikeTHERE AREN’T MANY literary agents in New York City who can honestly claim never to have lost a client to Andrew Wylie. The man poaches talent from his competitors regularly and without reservation, and he has said repeatedly that he sees nothing immoral about doing so. His method relies on a mix of flattery, persistence and swagger, and more often than not, he gets what he’s after, even if the seduction takes many years to play out.

One author Mr. Wylie never succeeded in signing, despite wanting to very badly, was John Updike, who died last January at the age of 76. By that time, Mr. Wylie had been in pursuit of Updike for more than a decade, but each time he made his pitch, the agent said, the author “politely declined.”

After Updike’s death, the situation changed, as his 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. Her decision to hire Mr. Wylie followed consultations with lawyer Jennifer Snyder Jennifer Snyder of the Boston firm WilmerHale, who was brought on to handle administration of the Estate after the author’s death.

The funny thing about Mr. Wylie’s failure to secure the Updike account while the author was still alive was that he wasn’t even competing with anyone for the prize: Updike, by choice, did not have an agent. Instead, he preferred to deal directly with Knopf, his publisher since the late 1950s, when Pat Knopf brought him over from HarperCollins and published his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair. According to his lifelong editor, Judith Jones, Knopf functioned both as Updike’s publisher and his representation– an unusual arrangement even before publishing turned into a corporate business. Not having a proper agent, Ms. Jones said, “was just part of who he was.”

“He had old-fashioned values, if you know what I mean,” said Ms. Jones, who has been with Knopf for more than 50 years. “For him it was perfect: We did the work of an agent for him and did it extraordinarily well, particularly in the field of foreign rights, and it didn’t cost him anything!”

Over the course of his career, Updike would publish an astonishing 60 books through Knopf, each one apparently the result of a friendly discussion between him and the publisher. Mr. Wylie’s task now is to sit down with the contracts that came out of those discussions and determine what they leave him to work with.

“We acquire copies of all contracts and a few years of royalty statements, analyze them, place them in our database,” Mr. Wylie said in an email, “and make recommendations, territory by territory, based on what we find.”

And what might that be? Potentially, not very much! According to Knopf’s executive director of publicity, Paul Bogaards, most of Updike’s books are still in print in the U.S., meaning Knopf still controls those rights and will continue to do so until they revert back to the estate. And if Knopf’s celebrated director of international rights, Carole Janeway, has been diligent about managing Updike’s foreign contracts, Mr. Wylie could find himself staring into an empty tomb.

“I’m rather puzzled by what’s in it for an agent,” said Ms. Jones, who is a co-executor of the Estate with Mrs. Updike. “But, clearly it’s something Andrew Wylie has wanted for a long time, to have John Updike as one of his authors. And he’ll clearly do what he can do to explore every possibility.”

His track record suggests he will go about this work, let’s say, not without energy. His client list contains more than 70 estates, including those of Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow and Jorge Luis Borges. This fall, he added the J.G. Ballard Estate and the W.H. Auden Estate.

One of the first estates Mr. Wylie ever represented, that of Italo Calvino, provides an instructive illustration of the muscle the agent is capable of flexing. In that case, Mr. Wylie succeeded in getting the late author’s longtime Italian publisher, Einaudi, to revert the rights to all of Calvino’s titles, and with the support of the author’s widow resold them, along with a bundle of unpublished work, to a different house.

Which is to say that if there are Updike rights out in the world that can be shaken loose-be they for movies, translations, e-books or paperbacks-Mr. Wylie will find them. As he put it to The Times of London in July 2008, this is his specialty. “It’s like walking into a house that hasn’t been cleaned in a decade,” Mr. Wylie said then. “We strip the bed, put on new sheets, fluff up the pillows, clean the kitchen-and suddenly the house increases in value.”

Though Mr. Wylie said it is too early to speak at length about future plans, he did say a collection of Updike’s essays would be delivered to Knopf this fall. And Max Rudin, the publisher of the Library of America series, said he is in talks with Mr. Wylie and the estate about bringing out Library of America editions of Updike’s work at some point in the future-something the author was very eager to do while he was alive but couldn’t because such editions would compete directly with Knopf’s Everyman’s Library series. Two unpublished early novels, entitled Home and Go Away, do exist in an archive at Harvard, but according to Mr. Wylie they are “not for publication.”

lneyfakh@observer.com