Amis calls in the money man

The country's coolest novelist has set book publishers quivering by his choice of agent to win him £500,000. John Walsh reports strap includes john walsh byline
As dawn breaks over the British publishing world on Monday, extra supplies of Prozac will be ordered, pencils snapped and lunches in Orso and Christopher's cancelled - all because an American literary businessman flies into town. After two weeks o f rumour that the country's coolest novelist and the world's most ruthless agent were in cahoots, Andrew Wylie will arrive to negotiate with several leading London houses about the rights to Martin Amis's new book.

Why all the fuss? It was known before Christmas that Amis had instructed his long-standing agent, Pat Kavanagh, to ask £500,000 for his new novel, The Information. This is a hefty advance for a literary work, but scarcely an unprecedented one (Ian McEwangot £250,000 for The Innocent, five years ago) and four publishers duly proffered bids. Ms Kavanagh had persuaded the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins to raise its bid to £460,000, while advising rival bidders that Amis would rather not be published by HarperCollins (whose fictional output tends more towards thick-ear thrillers and the works of his father, Sir Kingsley).

And then came the news that Amis had taken on Wylie to oversee the negotiations. The publishing world has been thrown into turmoil, for several reasons. First, it is a slap in the face to Pat Kavanagh, a hard-bargaining and elegant member of London's literary inner sanctum (her husband, the novelist Julian Barnes, is a beneficiary of her agenting skills). Second, the sum they're asking is economic nonsense - Amis's last novel, Time's Arrow, got an advance of £120,000 but sold a disappointing 22,000 in hardback; his new work, even with a volume of short stories thrown in, is worth £300,000 tops. And third, it involves the dread name of Andrew Wylie.

Wylie has been a controversial figure since his first appearance in the late Eighties. He has attracted rumours: he was a failed Beat poet, an intimate of the rock star Lou Reed. Renowned for his exceptional memory, he would woo authors whom he wished torepresent by quoting enormous chunks of their prose; then would express incredulity at the size of their next advance. He wooed Salman Rushdie (whose agent Deborah Rogers had sold The Satanic Verses to Cape for under £100,000) by promising he could get him a million dollars - in the event the figure was $850,000.

What Wylie represents to British publishers is brokerage run wild. They are appalled (but impressed) by his skill at talking up publishing advances to stratospheric levels, way beyond commercial logic. To other agents, he is known as an unscrupulous poacher who turns the mostly benign world of author representation into a Sergeant Bilko-like free-for-all of improbable deals.

When Wylie first approached Amis in 1987, Amis turned him down, explaining to a friend that he would feel uncomfortable with an agent "who signified his disapproval of Saul Bellow's new novel by stubbing out his cigarette on it". Like a scorned lover, Wylie has remained in pursuit of his prey. His chances markedly improved when he became agent to Isobel Fonseca. For it was she for whom Amis left his family in 1993 and with whom he decamped to a new life in New York. Via Fonseca, Wylie met Amis again, listened to his woes about HarperCollins and promised "Let me handle it".

Many people have speculated about why Amis - the British writer most praised by critics, most imitated by beginners and most adulated by the literate young in the last 20 years - should be so uncool as to demand money from his publishers. They cite his divorce settlement, his need for an expensive home, even his dental bills. The more obvious explanation, however, is envy. Though accredited as a genius at home, his books do not sell well abroad, nor translate successfully to film. Though unoff icially the leader of a generation, he is less successful than his closest peers, Julian Barnes (who has a higher profile in America and France) and Ian McEwan (whose books become better movies). He is thought to be jealous of Jim Crace, the Cape author who recently secured an advance of £400,000 for his next two books without having a fraction of Amis's reclame. He has even watched non-novelist acquintances such as Bill Buford (one of Wylie's best friends in London) hit the big time on his doorstep, se curing ajob as literary editor of the New Yorker for $300,000 a year. In short, could Amis be suffering from a slow-burning attack of amour propre?

Spookily, the Amis affair shares some correspondences with the plot of the book that is at its heart. The Information tells the story of a writer of serious fiction, one Richard Tull, who, after five novels, is having to come to terms with his failure asa commercial prospect. In the book, Tull watches in horror as a former university friend whom he has always secretly despised as a philistine suddenly writes a novel and sees it turn into a massive international success.

The price of esteem is the currency in which Andrew Wylie is trading. Next Tuesday will feature the crucial meeting, when he sits down with Jonathan Cape - who have published all Amis's novels, from The Rachel Papers to Time's Arrow - and tries to persuade them to part with exactly twice what they think Amis's new book is worth. It would be interesting to be a fly on the agenda pad at Cape's handsome Vauxhall Bridge premises, if only because Amis's long-term agent, Pat Kavanagh, has also been asked to attend. Will Wylie succeed? "There are arguments that might prevail," said a senior editorial figure who will be there. "But that way lies madness. If Martin Amis is worth £500,000, then Roddy Doyle is worth five and half million". Which, of course, opensup a fresh can of worms. Has Andrew Wylie a couple of hours to nip over to Dublin?