Fickle Authors Turn Agents Nasty: Not a Love Story

After journalist Michael Capuzzo’s book on shark attacks, Close to Shore: A True Story of Terror in an Age of Innocence , published by Broadway, spent most of the summer of 2001 floating up the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, Mr. Capuzzo did what a lot of writers are tempted to do when buoyed by sudden success: He ditched his agent.

Taking a page from the playbook of Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, the authors of The Nanny Diaries -who are now on their third agent and have just sold their second book-Mr. Capuzzo, a one-time National Magazine Award nominee, “traded up,” switching from David Vigliano of David Vigliano Associates to the better-connected Robert Gottlieb of the Trident Media Group, which recently merged with the Ellen Levine Literary Agency. (Mr. Gottlieb is no relation to the book editor and Observer dance critic of the same name.) It’s the kind of situation that makes agents more paranoid than ever these days, as new agencies proliferate and the ranks of agents swell. Authors, meanwhile, see plenty of reasons to switch: Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier’s $8 million from Random House and $3 million from Paramount-based on a single-page novel proposal after he switched from agent Lee Feldman to Amanda “Binky” Urban at ICM-is the most eye-popping recent example. One publishing executive lamented, “They all think they’re going to get that big kill if they do the right thing. Frazier has been a big problem for authors, because he gives them these delusions.”

But unlike Mr. Frazier or the authors of The Nanny Diaries -who got a reported $3 million from Random House for a two-book deal just one day after three sample chapters were circulated to editors by their newest agent, Suzanne Gluck of William Morris-Mr. Capuzzo may have come up short. While the 45-year old Mr. Capuzzo wanted to make a move to writing fictional thrillers, with an eye toward scoring movie deals, his new agent has so far sold only a nonfiction book, the movie rights to which were already sold.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 2, Mr. Gottlieb started the bidding on an ambitious three-book deal for his new client, giving editors until Friday noon-less than three days-to read 300 pages of proposal material for two nonfiction books and a novel idea, and then file their bids. The editors he submitted to balked, however, and instead of selling all three books, Mr. Gottlieb sold only one, The Arms of Angels , a nonfiction account of a criminologists’ club called the Vidocq Society. Mr. Capuzzo’s novel idea had no takers.

The Arms of Angels was acquired by publisher Bill Shinker, at the Penguin Putnam imprint Gotham Books, for a figure said by one source to be around $800,000. As it happens, while he was at Broadway, Mr. Shinker was the editor who acquired Mr. Capuzzo’s first book .

Publishing executives familiar with the situation said that editors considered it hubris that Mr. Gottlieb was giving them such a small time window to bid. “If you’re Tom Clancy, you can get away with that,” said one industry executive. “He grossly overplayed his hand.”

Mr. Gottlieb, of course, discovered Tom Clancy in 1984, and soon thereafter became head of William Morris’ New York literary division. In August 2000, however, the mega-selling author left Mr. Gottlieb for Michael Ovitz and AMG. Mr. Gottlieb, angry that his client had been pilfered, famously remarked that it was “open season” on Mr. Ovitz. He started Trident that same year.

Since Mr. Clancy’s famous agent-hopping incident, switching agencies has become part of the game for writers with literary mojo. This one was practically textbook: When Mr. Capuzzo fired him last May, Mr. Vigliano was in the midst of negotiating a deal with Broadway for the North American rights to Mr. Capuzzo’s follow-up to Close to Shore , another man-versus-nature book, this one about Hurricane Camille. According to Mr. Vigliano, Mr. Capuzzo fired him because he was swayed by Mr. Gottlieb’s assertion that he could get Mr. Capuzzo $4.2 million for a three-book deal (he turned down a $600,000 offer from Broadway), and that Mr. Capuzzo would be able to parlay that success into a career in novel-writing. A publishing executive familiar with the situation told The Observer that “Gottlieb was pitching the guy as the next Michael Crichton.”

Mr. Vigliano said that his former client wasn’t so much greedy as looking to make it big in fiction. “According to Mike, that was his primary interest with going to Gottlieb,” he said, but the new agent “was not able to deliver on that.”

Mr. Gottlieb, who talked to The Observer from the Frankfurt Book Fair, denied charges that he had under-delivered for his client. “I think I’ve done fine. I created the hottest book in Frankfurt. They’re begging us for copies” of The Arms of Angels .

And Mr. Capuzzo himself, reached at his home in rural New Jersey, also denied that he was unhappy with the deal. “I’d have to be some kind of narcissistic asshole to say I’m disappointed that I got a huge deal,” he said.

But while Mr. Gottlieb appears to be scrambling to put a happy face on things, charges flew between him and Mr. Vigliano that only confirmed the image of agenting as the Wild West of the publishing world. Saying that he was “in negotiations” on the novel, Mr. Gottlieb said that his client had switched agents for reasons other than mere ambition or a desire to cross over into fiction. “He heard rumors that his agent was selling rights to his clients’ books in foreign markets and not paying them,” he said. “He left that agent and came to us. He came to us based on our reputation.”

Told of Mr. Gottlieb’s allegation, Mr. Vigliano said: “It’s just Gottlieb spreading really nasty rumors because he’s trying to justify his actions and his failures. Nobody has ever leveled that against me; I’ve never done that, and it’s absurd.”

For his part, Mr. Capuzzo declined to expand on Mr. Gottlieb’s claim. “I don’t want to get into why I left David Vigliano. There were reasons I left that I’d rather keep private. As far as my plans to broaden out into fiction, that’s going to happen.”

Of Mr. Vigliano, he added, “He’s one of the most aggressive and brilliant agents in New York.”

But as is often the case, the divorce of writer and agent is turning out to be a messy one. Mr. Vigliano told The Observer that Mr. Capuzzo signed a contract that said the agent would receive a commission on his next book-regardless of which agent sold it. “I have a contract, whether it’s the hurricane book or the Vidocq Society book,” he said. Mr. Capuzzo, he added, was caught off guard when his former agent’s attorney called him after he signed a contract with Mr. Gottlieb, reminding him of the stipulation. “I think he was very surprised when I called that to his attention,” Mr. Vigliano said. “I believe he had forgotten we had an agreement.”

Mr. Capuzzo said only that “I’m still trying to reach a settlement with David in terms of what he thinks is fair.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Gottlieb said that the film rights to the Vidocq Society story had been sold to Danny DeVito’s production company, Jersey Films. But Mr. Vigliano pointed out that the Vidocq Society itself sold the rights to Mr. DeVito, and that no money was received by Mr. Capuzzo. Furthermore, Mr. Vigliano said, there is no guarantee that the movie will be tied to the book. (The movie is already in development, and the book has not yet been written.)

But Mr. Gottlieb said that the book and film will be tied together “by certain components. It’s very early in the ball game.”

He then ended the conversation. “I gotta go,” he said, the din of Frankfurt buzzing through his cell phone. “I’ve got an Italian publisher who wants the rights to Vidocq.”

Is Penguin Putnam changing its name? A year after the departure of chief executive Phyllis Grann, the revered publishing powerhouse who took the Putnam imprint to greater glory, a source at the company told The Observer that Penguin is considering dropping the “Putnam” from the corporate logo. “They’re doing tons of brand research right now,” said the source. “They’re guessing that more people know Penguin than Putnam.”

Robert Cavosi, the manager of corporate communications for Penguin Putnam, would not deny the information outright, but said, “Nothing’s imminent and nothing’s been finalized.”

Told of the possible name change, people began speculating on what the move might mean for Ms. Grann’s legacy at the company. The dropping of the hallowed imprint from the company ID, one executive said, may be “a goodbye kiss from Marjorie Scardino,” the chief executive of Pearson, parent company of Penguin Putnam. In September 2001, The New York Times reported that Ms. Grann’s departure was partly a result of clashes with Pearson management, and that she “made no secret” of her disagreements with Ms. Scardino.

“This would never happen if Phyllis was still C.E.O.,” said the source.

Ms. Grann, who left Random House in July 2002 after a six-month stint in a nebulous in-house executive position, declined to comment on her previous company. “I’m retired from there, so I don’t have any comment. If that’s what they want to do …. “

The source said the change could take place in early 2003.

Karen Rinaldi, the 41-year-old publisher of the British imprint Bloomsbury, has been quietly shopping her first novel, called The End of Men . It’s about the life of Isabel, a magazine executive.

Ms. Rinaldi’s agent, Kim Witherspoon, did not respond to several phone calls, but according to editors who have seen it, the 261-page manuscript began circulating this summer.

Those with long memories may recall that Ms. Rinaldi was the other woman in the very public romantic meltdown of once-married novelists Joel Rose and Catherine Texier, who edited the downtown literary journal Between C & D from 1983 to 1990. In 1996, Ms. Rinaldi, then an editor at Crown Publishing, had a fling with Mr. Rose after she paid him $105,000 for his novel Kill Kill Faster Faster . Mr. Rose left Ms. Texier for Ms. Rinaldi and the two later married.

Ms. Texier went on to get a six-figure payout of her own for an anguished tell-all about the collapse of her marriage, called Breakup: The End of a Love Story , published by Doubleday in 1998.

A number of readers of Ms. Rinaldi’s novel believe that it’s a roman à clef -but not about her notorious role in the downtown literary love feud. Instead, they said, it appears to draw from Ms. Rinaldi’s time as an editor at Details in the mid-1990’s, where she worked under-and was believed to have dated-James Truman, then the magazine’s editor. A character in the novel named Christopher Bellow, an associate publisher of a women’s magazine called Pink , is thought to be based on the Condé Nast editorial director.

“People who know her definitely identified Christopher as Truman,” one publishing executive said.

Contacted by The Observer , Ms. Rinaldi denied that the book had any relation to reality.

Still, the novel’s portrait of Mr. Bellow as a spiritual seeker seemed to ring a bell for some, recalling Mr. Truman’s Zen retreat in upstate New York earlier in the year. “This weekend I was exploring being-in-dreaming,” Christopher says in the novel, upon returning from a Wicca convention in Maine. Isabel, however, is not impressed, and says that Christopher’s constant exploration of “some new discipline, dance, theory, part of himself … was one of the least attractive parts of him, his tortured struggle to come to terms with his own humanity.”

To head off the possibility that people would connect Mr. Truman to Christopher, Ms. Rinaldi gave Mr. Truman a pre-emptive phone call. “I guess she wanted me to know that some people felt this character was based on me,” he told The Observer . “She told me it isn’t. If it is, it sounds rather indirect. It doesn’t sound like it was me.”

He also said that rumors that the two had dated while working together at Details were untrue. “It was never a romantic relationship,” he said. “We had dinner as friends, but it wasn’t a date. I was going out with other people and so was she.”

Isabel-married, pregnant and reminiscing about her fling with Christopher-confesses that she never slept with him, but only dated him briefly. She does recall, however, wrestling naked with him on his living-room floor. After Christopher pins her wrists down, the scene unfolds into something resembling Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley grappling by firelight in Naked Gun 2[1/2 ]: “She kneed him in the balls to make him let go. Afterwards, they lay sweating and naked on the couch and drank Ovaltine. Then she went home. Recalling the evening now, Isabel couldn’t remember why she didn’t stay.”

Could the scene have come out of the Details history books? Not a chance, according to Mr. Truman. “I’d never wrestle with Karen,” he said. “She’s much too tough.”