Literary Agents Take Wing

It can’t have escaped any industry observer’s notice that literary agents are on the move. Bill Contardi’s out of William Morris and Karen Solem’s gone from Writers House, while the Loomis Agency’s Nicole Aragi has just set up her own shop.

What’s up? PT queried those involved in the changes to tell us what they saw from their perspectives and, while there’s no single explanation, some common themes emerged. First, the economy has obviously forced larger agencies to trim their budgets, even as individual agents realized that splitting smaller commissions with the home office was less and less viable. Then too, cheaper and better technology has made it easier for solo agents to manage an office without a staff. Finally, several say quality of life issues come into play: Jody Hotchkiss, who left Sterling Lord Literistic to start his own company (with SLL as a client), says that he reevaluated his own career after the death a Connecticut neighbor who had worked at Cantor Fitzgerald and left behind a wife and young children. Bill Contardi left William Morris as a result of restructuring in the wake of Robert Gottlieb’s departure and Jim Wiatt’s rise in LA, but he plans to continue agenting on his own in both publishing and film, working with independent literary agents for film and TV representation.

Though Linda Chester began to renegotiate her business relationship with her agents on the advice of her accountant, she decided to downsize because she realized that managing staff was not how she wanted to spend her time. She had been paying for Rockefeller Center office expenses and assistants’ salaries, and in some cases, agents’ retainers, but working with authors was getting lost in the day-to-day details. At one point, a total of twenty, including agents Joanna Pulcini, Julie Rubenstein, Paul Fedorko, Fredi Friedman, Judith Ehrlich, and Laurie Fox, were affiliated with the agency. By late August, only one assistant and Laurie Fox were still there, though Fox works in California. Now Chester is subletting her space and taking smaller space in the building. “I wanted to work with creative people and have fun,” she says, rather than managing an office and mentoring new agents. With lower overhead, she hopes to give some of her profits to charity. Julie Rubenstein appreciates Chester’s p.o.v., but says that she’s glad to be on her own and keeping full commissions on books. “Linda was very helpful to me in terms of follow-through after publication,” but the new arrangement that Chester would have offered (with Rubenstein continuing to work at home, but paying expenses and still splitting the commission 50/50) was not financially viable.

Karen Solem also says she found it increasingly difficult to juggle the expense of splitting commissions and a two-and-a-half-hour commute from Columbia County. After “six happy years” with Writers House, she has rented office space in Chatham, and with the help of a part-time assistant, has started her own agency. Referring to her former colleagues, she adds, “No matter how wonderful they are, you pay a steep price.” That’s less and less the case with a solo practice, newly solo film agent Jody Hotchkiss argues. With less overhead and infrastructure required than in the past, he says, an independent agent with a solid client list — who could have once expected to make money in 3 to 5 years — now expects to break even by year one and make money by year two.

Indeed, independence is addictive: Nicole Aragi says she moved because she had had her own business in England and “in the end I succumbed to the urge to do so again.” In between wrestling with Verizon, she closed the Colson Whitehead deal (“a solid six figure” two-book deal with Doubleday/Vintage), is in the process of submitting first-time novelist Monica Ali’s book, and is being “deluged” with submissions.

Marly Rusoff, once an affiliate with Carlisle & Co., succumbed in September, and set up her own shop in Bronxville. Though she remains on good terms with former colleagues, she wanted to do fewer projects and “make the decision where to take my risks.” Having worked in many areas of publishing, she says it’s her “ambition to be available to my authors for the whole publishing process.” She recently signed up Pat Conroy, whose wife, Cassandra King, was already a client. And she has also taken on an associate of her own, Renee Zuckerbrot, who was a colleague at Doubleday. In exchange for helping in the development and selling of a project, Rusoff takes a third of the commission. Rusoff also uses IMG for foreign rights.

There’s a middle way between going it alone and being in a large agency. Having built up a client list at The Robbins Agency over seven years, Bill Clegg joined with ex-LB editor Sarah Burnes to launch their agency in March of 2001. Unlike many agencies, they are an “S corp,” sharing expenses and distributing commission by a formula that has resulted in a profit in year one. Sharing space had brought Henry Dunow, Irene Skolnick, and Martha Kaplan together under one roof originally. Now they’re looking for more space so that they can sublet to other agents. Sally Wofford Girand, who handled foreign rights and was an agent at the Elaine Markson Agency for 14 years, is going into business with four other agents in a co-op venture. She approached everyone after a “9/11 moment,” and is leaving Markson at the end of this month. Meanwhile, David McCormick just exchanged IMG’s large roof for a smaller one with Nina Collins, who is starting a new agency herself. He will be contributing a modest portion of his earnings to cover the company’s overhead.

But Michael Carlisle argues that bigger is better: In business now for four years, he has created a model with some similarities to Linda Chester’s — including the expensive offices — but with a larger on-staff agent base. He also has an affiliate relationship with four other agents, including Paul Bresnick. He said he made a lot of expensive mistakes when he set up: he bought the wrong phone system (too small) and signed up with the wrong Internet service provider (went belly up). The purpose of this set-up is to create a substantial presence in the industry very quickly. This objective increases the odds — as the new kid on the block — that your manuscript submission will be read more rapidly, he says. Those at the Harold Ober Agency would probably agree: Coming off its most successful year ever, the agency just hired agent Alex Smithline from Scovil, Chichak & Galen.

Agents’ contact info: Nicole Aragi: [email protected] Burnes & Clegg: (212) 331-9880 Michael Carlisle: [email protected] Linda Chester: [email protected] Bill Contardi: [email protected] / (212) 599-2910 Jody Hotchkiss: [email protected] Julie Rubenstein: [email protected] Marly Rusoff: [email protected] / (914) 961-7939 Karen Solem: [email protected]