Martin Amis's Big Deal Leaves Literati Fuming


In London's tight-knit literary world, the exciting news in November that the novelist Martin Amis had demanded an incredible (for here) $794,500 for his forthcoming novel, "The Information," spread like wildfire in a parched forest. But it didn't become apparent until recently, when a deal was finally consummated and the smoke began to clear, that almost everyone involved had been burned along the way.

There was Mr. Amis's longtime publisher, a division of Random House U.K., and his longtime agent, Pat Kavanagh, both of whom were replaced during the negotiations. There was the formidable novelist A. S. Byatt, who gave Mr. Amis an unusual public tongue-lashing. There was the sharp-shooting Andrew Wylie, Mr. Amis's new agent, whom the British press nicknamed the Jackal. And then there was Mr. Amis himself, pilloried for unseemly and un-British greed by an unforgiving London press.


"I think everyone was taken aback by the extent of the attention," said one British editor, who, like most people involved in the situation, would only speak anonymously. "But I think that it has to do with the fact that there are very, very few writers in this country with any kind of popular press presence, and he's one of them, for reasons that partly have to do with his father." (That would, of course, be Kingsley Amis, author of "Lucky Jim" and many other works that have made him an institution here.)

It was last fall when the 45-year-old Martin Amis, known as much for his reputation as a literary bad boy as for his novels, instructed Ms. Kavanagh to seek $794,500 for "The Information," the story of a writer with trouble at home who confronts his own failure and his best friend's success. (Mr. Amis himself recently left his wife for a younger woman, an American, adding prurient interest to anything he does here.) The figure came out -- leaked, probably, by a stunned employee at Mr. Amis's publisher, Jonathan Cape -- and all of a sudden a deal that should have been private became all too public.

Part of what took everyone aback, said Peter Straus, the editor of Picador, a division of Macmillan, is that Mr. Amis is a literary novelist, not a commercial writer like the high-earning authors Jeffrey Archer, John Grisham and Barbara Taylor Bradford. "Commerce and literature are still meant to be separate in England," Mr. Straus said. "If you're writing mass-market fiction, it doesn't matter your price: you can be as vulgar as you want in terms of money. But somehow that isn't the same for literary fiction."

Cape, in conjunction with Penguin, offered about $525,000 in a deal that included hard-cover and paperback rights, arguing that it would be virtually impossible for the book to earn back the hefty advance the author sought. People at the company say that two of Mr. Amis's best-known books, "Money" and "London Fields," have sold about 40,000 copies apiece in hardback, and about 230,000 in paperback, in Britain and the Commonwealth. "The Information" would have to sell twice as many copies in hardback to break even, publishers said.

Mr. Amis turned down the offer and in the subsequent melee, Ms. Kavanagh obtained an offer of about $731,000 from HarperCollins U.K. Mr. Amis turned that down, too. That's when Ms. Byatt, a Cape author who won the Booker Prize in 1990 for her novel "Possession," weighed in with her own view: Mr. Amis's request, she said, was "folie de grandeur."

"He must believe that his name is so extraordinary that anyone will pay an extra $:250,000" -- about $397,250 -- "to have him on their list," she said. Calling Mr. Amis's approach "a kind of male turkey cocking," she went on: "I always earn out my advances and I don't see why I should subsidize his greed, simply because he has a divorce to pay for and has just had all his teeth redone."

Ms. Byatt's comments were widely reprinted, the conventional wisdom being that whatever their merits, she had violated the unwritten compact of solidarity among authors and had badly misstepped on the issue of Mr. Amis's teeth. Friends of the author say he has indeed endured painful and costly dental treatments, dictated not by vanity, but by acute medical necessity. (Mr. Amis wouldn't comment.)

Meanwhile, Mr. Amis did something shocking, at least in the publishing world. He removed his old friend Ms. Kavanagh (who also happens to be married to another of his old friends, the novelist Julian Barnes), replacing her with Andrew Wylie, a New Yorker known for driving hard American bargains. Mr. Wylie, as it happens, also represents Mr. Amis's girlfriend, Isabel Fonseca, as well as Salman Rushdie and several other British authors. The British press reacted with a barrage of unflattering profiles of Mr. Wylie.

Mr. Wylie traveled to London several weeks ago and conducted an auction of his own. In the end, people with knowledge of the deal say, he obtained somewhere between $731,000 and $795,000 from HarperCollins, a sum, interestingly enough, not substantially different from what Ms. Kavanagh had negotiated earlier. The deal includes a volume of short stories, but editors here said that it might well be the most ever paid for a literary novel in Britain. "He's a brilliant writer and I'm pleased that he's been paid a brilliant advance," Mr. Straus said, "but I think it's too high."

At the same time, high advances often make mischief with other authors, who grumble bitterly that they deserve more money, too. "The talk creates a lot of bad feeling," said Ed Victor, a literary agent. "You get people asking what happens to all that money. And you can see a queue starting to form outside of Eddie Bell's door," he added, referring to the publisher of HarperCollins U.K., whose authors will undoubtedly expect raises, too.

In the United States, Random House agreed some time ago to pay $400,000 for hard-cover and paperback rights to Mr. Amis's previous novel, "Time's Arrow," and a subsequent one, which turned out to be "The Information." The British reaction to the Amis affair mystified many Americans, who are well used to star authors, big egos and big money.

"It's a great sale with great money, but it's not $5 million or $10 million," said Peter Guzzardi, the editorial director of Harmony Books, the Random House imprint that publishes Mr. Amis. Mr. Guzzardi said that "The Information" was Mr. Amis's best work yet. "My feeling is that once people start to read the book they'll forget all this, because it really delivers," he said. The book is to be published in March in Britain and in late May in the United States.

Mr. Amis has recently returned to Britain from the United States and declined, through Mr. Wylie, to be interviewed. Mr. Wylie had no comment, either. Ms. Kavanagh, Mr. Amis's former agent and friend, would say only that "the ironies inherent in this outcome will not be lost on any of the participants."

©Telegraph Group Limited