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William Morris Agency may scoop up lit shop

Helps plug gap left by departure of Gottlieb's stable

NEW YORK — The William Morris Agency is in advanced talks to acquire boutique lit agency the Writers Shop.

Both firms declined comment, but for William Morris, the merger would be a significant step toward plugging the huge gap left by the departure four months ago of lit department co-head Robert Gottlieb. Many of Gottlieb’s writers left WMA to join his new management firm, Trident Media Group, including Dean Koontz, Elizabeth George and Janet Evanovich.

Formerly known as the Virginia Barber Agency, the Writers Shop reps more than 100 writers, including bestsellers Peter Mayle, Kathy Reichs, Timothy Findley, Christina Schwarz and Anne Rivers Siddons.

Move also would strengthen the Gotham presence of an agency that recently has faced rumors that its days as a bicoastal operation were numbered. When co-CEO Jim Wiatt took over, he beheaded its costly London office and began cutting the number of New York-based talent agents and discharging older clients whose careers had slowed. (And with them, many of their agents: WMA fixtures like Frank Frattaroli, Johnnie Planco, Gene Parseghian and Carol Yumkas all ankled the shop.)

More change is expected: Gotham transplant WMA agent Michelle Stern is likely to move back to the West Coast office by spring; Gotham-based WMA talent agent Kenny Goodman has had similar conversations. The two rep such thesps as Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, Willem Dafoe, Lili Taylor, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Scott Wolf, Andrew Lauren, Dan Gauthier and newcomer Tyrese Gibson.

The Writers Shop is jointly run by Virginia Barber and Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. Over the years, Walsh has added a flashy and younger stable of authors, such as Ethan Hawke, Robert Sabbag and Reichs, to Barber’s long roster of distinguished authors.

WMA still has one of the premier lists in the business, but it’s not clear how easily its operations could be merged with those of the smaller firm.

Virtues of independence

Many Writers Shop clients have deals in Hollywood. But in an interview (Daily Variety, July 16), Walsh extolled the virtues of running an independent agency not wedded to a single Hollywood co-agent.

“I think of myself as a rogue agent,” she told Daily Variety at the time.

Walsh has negotiated numerous deals for her authors in other media. In the comparatively regimented corporate structure of a Hollywood agency like WMA, that might not be possible.

Also, like most independent lit agencies, Writers Shop takes a 15% commission on its book deals, while WMA takes just 10%.

Some publishing insiders have speculated that Virginia Barber, an eminence grise of the book world, might use the merger as an occasion to exit the company. No one can predict whether some of her clients, accustomed to the personal touch that has long been a hallmark of the Writers Shop, will jump ship if it merges with the behemoth WMA.

(Claude Brodesser in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)