When Richard Abate arrived at work on Feb. 9, he had a lot on his mind. For the past decade, the 40-year-old book agent had worked at the International Creative Management (ICM) agency, representing a long list of authors from James Swanson to Dale Peck to Jon Katz.
But recently Mr. Abate had become disenchanted with his job, which was set to expire at the end of 2007. A few weeks earlier, his bosses had offered to extend his contract for three more years. After mulling it over, Mr. Abate decided to reject their offer.
Now it was time to break the bad news.
Not long after arriving at the World Wide Plaza building on Eighth Avenue, Mr. Abate approached Esther Newberg, his longtime mentor and the head of ICM’s book division, and told her his final decision.
But what would he do next?
Mr. Abate said that he was hoping, at some point, to go to work for Endeavor, a rival talent agency that, like ICM, was based in Hollywood. Unlike ICM, however, Endeavor didn’t have an East coast literary division. At least, not yet.
Later that afternoon, he reported for work at Endeavor, to open up the first books division under super-agent (and Entourage inspiration) Ari Emanuel.
PUBLSHING FOLK—FROM AGENTS TO EDITORS to publicists—frequently seem to jump from house to house, firm to firm, without too much fanfare or consequence. But Mr. Abate’s departure from ICM was something different. Despite the fact that they have New York offices, ICM, like Endeavor, is fundamentally a Hollywood agency, and operates by Hollywood rules. Meaning: Leaving one for the other was seen as a cataclysmic betrayal. Accordingly, when he left ICM, the agency sued Mr. Abate, who managed to take 48 of his 50 clients with him to his new job.
As it happens, defecting from ICM is a time-honored tradition at Endeavor, which was formed, in fact, in 1995, when Ari Emanuel and several other agents walked away from ICM.
As Mr. Abate, who declined to comment for this article, would later testify in court, on that Friday morning in February, Ms. Newberg gave him some words of advice: Leave the building right now before L.A. wakes up. If you wait, they’ll escort you out with security guards. L.A. is going to be furious.
In geography and mind-set, culture and disposition, the worlds of New York book publishing and Hollywood moviemaking are far, far apart. (Think about how different the citizens of the two cities are, and multiply that by 10.) But increasingly, the two are colliding with one another. Authors, their agents and their publishers stand to make big money from film deals; more and more, novels are sold in pre-emptive deals to film-production companies before they’re even on the shelves. Of the many agencies in New York, just two—mega-agencies ICM and William Morris—manage to represent clients in both worlds simultaneously: actors, screenwriters and directors in the brassy, ballsy world of Hollywood, as well as authors in the genteel, cerebral world of New York publishing.
During his decade at ICM, Mr. Abate belonged wholeheartedly to the latter camp. Still, he was Hollywood-savvy enough to be attractive to Mr. Emanuel, who courted him for the Endeavor job. It was practically a perfect match. The only surprise is that it took so long for the edgy agency to get in on the books end of the action.
According to his later testimony in court, Mr. Abate had long anticipated that ICM, which employed him for a decade, would fire him as soon as he turned down their contract extension. In case of that eventuality, for weeks he had been working on Career Plan B—setting up a new literary division for ICM’s Hollywood rival, Endeavor.
In the wake of his apparent dismissal, Mr. Abate moved fast. By the end of the day that Friday, he had set up a makeshift workspace in Endeavor’s New York offices in midtown. There, in a group conference room, he propped up a computer on a filing cabinet and got to work contacting his clients.
On March 5, Variety reported that Endeavor had hired Mr. Abate to set up the agency’s nascent East Coast literary division. By that point, the bulk of Mr. Abate’s former clients had reportedly followed him to Endeavor.
Around that time, Mr. Abate contacted his former office to see if they would send over all of the book proposals, novels and query letters that had been piling up in his absence. He was particularly worried about offending his nephew’s teacher, who had sent in a novel in progress. His former colleagues in the literary division obliged. In New York, collegiality prevailed.
Not so in L.A.
On March 7, two days after the piece in Variety, the ICM honchos in Hollywood filed a $10 million lawsuit against Mr. Abate in New York District Court, accusing him of breach of contract and seeking an injunction to prevent Mr. Abate from working for Endeavor until January 2008. In the complaint, the lawyers pointed out that prior to his employment at ICM, Mr. Abate had been working “as an assistant at a book publisher earning $20,000 a year.” In 2006, ICM paid Mr. Abate $225,000 plus an $85,000 year-end bonus.
WHILE ICM WAS BUSY DEFENDING THEIR TERRITORY in court, another one of their West Coast competitors was making plans to move in on the same market. In April, the Gersh talent agency announced that Phyllis Wender, a longtime New York–based literary agent, would be joining the firm to launch its first book division.
If Mr. Abate’s struggles to open up a book division for Endeavor show off everything that can go bitterly wrong when the New York publishing world gets tangled up with the Hollywood movie culture, then Ms. Wender’s move to Gersh demonstrates all of the potential upside of such cross-continental partnerships.
Ms. Wender, who was born in New York City and raised outside of Princeton, N.J., has deep roots in the New York publishing industry. In 1981, she co-founded an independent literary agency, called Rosenstone/Wender. Over the years, she built up a long, impressive roster of clients in the theater and book world, including the director Jack O’Brien, the novelist Amy Bloom, the actress and children’s-book writer Jamie Lee Curtis, and the estate of the late Wendy Wasserstein.
Overnight, by bringing Ms. Wender on board, Gersh established a formidable presence in New York. By teaming up with a well-connected L.A. agency, Ms. Wender can now offer her clients great access to screenwriting and directing opportunities in Hollywood.
Likewise, if Gersh clients (including studio actors and professional athletes) want to write a book, they can pass them along to the in-house New Y
orkers. Already, Gersh’s sports division has handed over one client to Ms. Wender’s division—namely the mixed-martial-arts fighter, former U.F.C. titleholder and budding author Randy Couture.
“The flow of information between Los Angeles and New York is incredibly useful,” said Ms. Wender. “And it goes both ways. It’s good for everybody involved.”
Unless, of course, it isn’t.
ON FRIDAY, MARCH 22, MR. ABATE trudged into a courtroom in lower Manhattan to square off against ICM lawyers at a hearing in front of Judge Peter K. Leisure.
Much of the acrimonious debate that followed more or less boiled down to one contested issue: Did Mr. Abate quit his job? Or was he fired?
During the hearing, under examination by ICM lawyer A. Michael Weber, Mr. Abate admitted that he had been in contact with Endeavor agents for months gauging their interest in forming a book division. Before turning down ICM’s offer, Mr. Abate said he spoke on several occasions to Nancy Josephson—a former colleague of Mr. Abate’s at ICM who had been fired in 2006 and subsequently joined Endeavor. “She said a lot of people there are book people,” said Mr. Abate.
“Your honor, let’s be candid here,” replied ICM’s Mr. Weber. “This wasn’t a friendly conversation about ‘Gee whillikers, aren’t books interesting?’”
About a week or two before he turned down ICM’s offer, Mr. Abate said, he had received a phone call at home from Ari Emanuel. Mr. Abate denied that Mr. Emanuel made him any specific job offer at the time. According to Mr. Abate, they had simply talked about Endeavor’s theoretical interest in books.
“Did you discuss going to the library together to get some books?” said Mr. Weber.
At one point, Mr. Abate rationalized his inability to remember specifics. “You don’t work as an agent,” said Mr. Abate. “But there’s a little joke among us called ‘agent’s brain’: We deal with hundreds of issues every day, and it’s really hard to remember anything.”
Eventually, like countless writers and actors before him, Judge Leisure lost patience with “agent’s brain.”
“You have to be careful,” the judge warned Mr. Abate. “Your lack of memory on things that were only 30 to 60 days before surprised me …. You’re wasting my time.”
Throughout the hearings, which lasted over two days, Mr. Abate continued to portray himself as a victim, a man who was caught up in the middle of a long-standing, acrimonious war between the L.A. offices of two rival companies; ICM’s legal team continued to portray him as an ungrateful employee who unlawfully broke his contract.
By the end of the hearings, Judge Leisure had rejected ICM’s request to prohibit Mr. Abate from working elsewhere. But as for the claim of damages, for the time being, the case remains in arbitration. The parties are due back in court later this year, on Nov. 15.
In the meantime, Mr. Abate is now working at Endeavor. In 2006, he co-wrote young-adult novel called The Taker, which he published under the pseudonym J.M. Steele. The Taker continues to be represented by ICM.
Follow Felix Gillette via RSS.