Agent Demoralized, But William Clegg Back With Vengeance

In early 2005, the New York literary agent William Clegg—who at the time represented big league authors Nicole Krauss and Susan Choi, among many others—suddenly stopped coming in to his office or returning phone calls, leaving his writers orphaned and unprotected against the cruelties of the publishing business.

While Mr. Clegg’s partner in his literary agency, Sarah Burnes of Burnes & Clegg, struggled to sort out their collapsing company and move on, his authors scattered and eventually landed at agencies all over town. The flurry of activity was a feeding frenzy that bordered on the unseemly, according to several publishing insiders, most of whom requested anonymity.

Over the course of the last year and a half, however, Mr. Clegg has resurfaced, dusted himself off and found a job as a literary agent at William Morris, where he started on Feb. 1. Since then, he’s coaxed several of his former authors to rejoin him at his new, decidedly fancier firm. While publishing-industry observers seem relieved that Mr. Clegg appears to be recovering from what are commonly thought to be personal problems, some are surprised that he’s successfully poached writers back from agents who had taken them in and helped out during a time of crisis. But for a short list of authors, the experience of abruptly being left to fend for themselves wasn’t scary enough to keep them from running back to Mr. Clegg.

Nick Flynn, the author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, left Amy Williams of McCormick & Williams to go back to Mr. Clegg at William Morris; Akhil Sharma, author of An Obedient Father, left David McCormick of McCormick & Williams; Stephen Elliott, author of Happy Baby, David Gilbert, author of The Normals, and the fiction writer Heather Clay have all also returned to Mr. Clegg. (It isn’t known which other agents they were working with, if any.)

“I’d rather not get into it all, except to say that [B]ill is a passionate and brilliant agent and reader,” Mr. Flynn wrote in an e-mail.

“He got me good money for my book, probably more money than I deserved,” said Mr. Sharma, referring to Mr. Clegg. “That’s a great thing.” (He added that it wasn’t money that was “life-changing,” but a sum that he could live on “for a year or two.”)

The most recent defection was Heather McGowan, author of Duchess of Nothing, who announced that she was leaving Ira Silverberg of Donadio & Olson to return to Mr. Clegg last week. (Mr. Clegg confirmed that he’s again working with the above mentioned authors, but would not otherwise comment for this story.)

Three of Mr. Clegg’s biggest names, however, have remained with their foster agents: Ms. Krauss, author of The History of Love, is represented by Melanie Jackson, while both Ms. Choi, who wrote American Woman, and Andrew Sean Greer, author of The Confessions of Max Tivoli, are signed up with Lynn Nesbit of Janklow & Nesbit.

In a few instances, the abandoned authors arrived at their new agents’ doorstep with loose ends to tie up in addition to their unpublished manuscripts—contracts to be sorted out or foreign royalties to be chased down.

In the case of Ms. McGowan, her contract for Duchess of Nothing became slightly more complicated than expected. Mr. Clegg sold her novel to Colin Dickerman at Bloomsbury in January 2005—one of the last deals he did before he temporarily left the business. Later, after Mr. Silverberg had agreed to represent Ms. McGowan, Bloomsbury complained that Mr. Clegg had negotiated overly aggressively for the book, according to a person familiar with the events, and asked to renegotiate the advance (said to be around $75,000). Ms. McGowan’s new agent argued with the publisher, and the contract was left unchanged.

Mr. Silverberg said that he was “annoyed but relieved” when Ms. McGowan told him she was leaving. “I think that writers who flit about from agent to agent and publisher to publisher just make it harder for everyone,” Mr. Silverberg said. (Mr. Dickerman declined to comment on the incident.)

Mr. Clegg’s reputation in publishing circles is as an attentive agent who garners significant (sometimes inflated) advances for his authors, but who was perhaps less focused on the nuts and bolts of his writers’ careers. (“Sometimes they were better-known for the advances they got than for their sales,” joked one editor.) One of Mr. Clegg’s former authors described him as good at “holding your hand, calling you and telling you you’re fabulous and that no one’s more talented than you … he was almost like a personal manager. He was a cheerleader. I think that’s what a lot of people miss.”

He is described as a charmer who could be very aggressive in business dealings and who was, at one time, a fixture on the social circuit, known for hosting parties at the apartment he lived in on lower Fifth Avenue. His tastes in books tilt heavily toward literary, sometimes highly noncommercial works (for example, he represented at least two well-known poets). It makes him a less-than-obvious fit for the literary department at William Morris, which is dominated by the agents Jennifer Rudolph Walsh and Suzanne Gluck, who usually traffic in high-volume fare.

“All of his authors are flocking back to him, which I think is the greatest testament to him,” said Ms. Rudolph Walsh. When asked whether Mr. Clegg’s seeming flakiness last year gave her pause, she said: “I think that people’s lives are very complicated, and generally the more complicated a person’s life is, the more interesting they are and the more interesting their outlook on literature can be. I believe that everybody deserves a second chance.”

At the time of his disappearance, Mr. Clegg’s author list was circulated around town and literary agents held beauty contests to scoop up the most lucrative or prestigious clients. The movements of Ms. Krauss and Ms. Choi were tracked closely. The panic that seemed to drive much of the activity struck some people as overblown—in between book deals, most writers are toiling at home and might not need an agent’s services for months. “Publishing is a slow-moving business,” said one publishing executive who remembered feeling “sort of disgusted” by it all. “If you have something to sell tomorrow, then yes, you need a new agent.”

Mr. Sharma said that initially, the loss of his agent had little impact on him. “There was no real reason for me to find anybody else at that point,” said Mr. Sharma, who is working on his second novel, Mother and Son. “My book was sold. I didn’t really need anybody while I was working on my novel. He vanished; I peacefully continued my thing.”

Eventually, Mr. Sharma wanted to try to secure some magazine assignments to supplement his income, so he looked around for a new agent to help him. He signed up with Mr. McCormick, whom he said he “liked very much.” Some time ago—Mr. Sharma thought that it might have been around six months—Mr. Sharma got an e-mail from Mr. Clegg letting him know that he was at William Morris. They met for lunch, and Mr. Clegg brought up the idea of coming back. Mr. Sharma discussed the idea with his wife, who was “leery.”

“I felt that he had done a good job with me the first time and, you know, I felt a strong desire to help this guy who’s in a difficult situation, trying to reestablish himself,” said Mr. Sharma, who is a former investment banker. “I’m not really looking for him to be my editor or my friend. I’m looking for him to sell these things for the greatest amount of money possible.”