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Book agents eye groups hugs

Lone-wolf mentality evolving into conglomeration

In the revolving door of today’s book world — editors hopping from house to house, big publishing groups purchased by ever larger media congloms — there’s often one constant in a writer’s life: his or her agent.

But that may be changing. And writers may not like the results.

Unlike the top editors at, say, Bertelsmann or Penguin, most agents nowadays don’t report to a corporate board. They answer only to their clients.

In Gotham, ICM and the William Morris Agency are corporate islands in an agenting pond still dominated by indies — boutique shops run by mavericks who like to call their own shots, retain close ties to their authors and run their Hollywood deals through a wide range of West Coast co-agents.

“Literary agents have traditionally been lone-wolf practitioners,” says Donald Maas, who runs the Donald Maas Lit Agency and serves as acting prexy of the Assn. of Authors Representatives. “The profession attracts that kind of individual.”

Ties that bind

But after several years in which indie agencies have multiplied and grown especially powerful, the business has begun to show signs of consolidation.

There was the small-scale Gotham merger of Knox Berger and Aaron Priest last year and the bigger marriage of Renaissance and AMG out West. The latest convulsion came two weeks ago, when WMA acquired robust Gotham boutique the Writers Shop.

“I’d call it the beginnings of a movement,” says Maas. “As the cost of doing business in Manhattan rises,” he says, “I think there will be more discussions between agents of grouping together.”

The Writers Shop acquisition is hardly a huge corporate merger. It served instead to fill a hole created when Robert Gottlieb and a small staff broke away from William Morris to form their own indie shop, the Trident Media Group.

But WMA could have plugged that gap just as easily by luring a few big agents away from other firms (and is said to have tried; sources at WMA say the Writers Shop was its top choice).

“If I was running an agency,” says Gottlieb, “my recommendation would be, first, to find the best agents to build up your division, rather than buying up a whole company. The only reason to buy a company is if you are buying a valuable backlist that has never been exploited in film and TV.”

The Writers Shop has hardly been quiet on the film and TV front.

Winning acquisition

The acquistition is widely considered a small coup for WMA — one agent called it “a home run for William Morris” — in part for enhancing the agency’s hand on the West Coast. Significantly, many Writers Shop authors –including Peter Mayle, Anita Shreve, Scott Lasser, and Lisa Reardon — have been repped in Hollywood by CAA.

If WMA packages those writers with its own Hollywood clients, it could deal a blow to CAA.

There’s no guarantee that will happen. Sources close to CAA deny they’d be harmed by the acquisition. None of those writers, after all, are contractually bound to a particular agency.

But just last week, CAA balked when WMA signed on to rep film rights to “Swift as Desire,” the latest novel from “Like Water for Chocolate” author Laura Esquivel.

CAA, which reps Esquivel as a screenwriter, has a long-standing relationship with her and managed to force William Morris off the project. The tiff only underscores the uncertainties facing a writer whose loyalties are divided between Hollywood superpowers.

Although Hollywood agencies like UTA, Endeavor or CAA haven’t disclosed any plans to make a play for an East Coast lit office, circumstances for such a move could well be in their favor.

The drive among the big tenpercenteries like ICM and WMA to fill content pipelines to the West Coast also coincides with a generational shift that makes some boutique agencies vulnerable to acquisition.

The Writers Shop, for example, is run by two agents, a young up-and-comer, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, and a prestigious vet, Virginia Barber, who may be planning to retire in the next few years.

The company perfectly illustrates an industrywide demographic: A wave of retirements among older agents, like Mort Janklow and Sterling Lord, is inevitable in coming years. Many of them may look for corporate exit strategies rather than devise a succession plan of their own or relearn a business facing unparalleled technological change.

But Janklow says that scenario’s unlikely. The subject of selling out, he says, “surfaces every couple of years. I’m sometimes willing to listen. You have conversations with people. But we’re not offering ourselves for sale.”

That may be a good thing, as it’s unlikely anyone could afford him.

As long as Janklow continues to rep such heavyweights as Michael Crichton, Thomas Harris and James Patterson, he has little need for the institutional mantle of a CAA or WMA.

“We’re not interested in being the SFX of the agenting business,” he says.

But for some firms, corporatization may present a financial cushion and roadmap for the future that’s hard to resist.

As Barber puts it in a WMA release announcing her deal: “With publishing houses growing bigger and fewer and new-media rights being invented before our eyes, we’re happy to bring our authors into the bigger family of William Morris.”

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