Last month was Scott Moyers’ first as a literary agent, and by the end of it he had sold four books: a study of the American labor movement by the historian Philip Dray; a cultural history of middle age by New York Times writer Patricia Cohen; a biography of Joseph Goebbels by the German historian Peter Longerich; and an investigation of Dick Cheney’s vice presidency by Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman. The buyers were, respectively, Doubleday, Scribner, Random House and the Penguin Press.
Not a bad opening month—though having worked as an editor at all four of those houses may have come in handy. Indeed, it’s in part that pedigree that prompted the famously hard-charging Andrew Wylie—whose Wylie Agency is the most powerful and prestigious in town, and who has never been shy about poaching writers away from other agents—to lure Moyers over to the other side of the book business.
Many of Mr. Moyers’ colleagues in the industry say they’re pleased for him about his new gig. But a few fear that between the personal loyalty that Mr. Moyers commands from many of the writers he’s edited, and Mr. Wylie’s formidable existing stable of talent and no-holds-barred recruiting tactics, the pair could create a juggernaut with the ability to raid the rosters of smaller competitors.
Sure enough, in his first few weeks on the job, Mr. Moyers has already brought two boldfaced names over to Wylie: Mr. Dray, whose book on lynching was edited by Mr. Moyers when he was at Random House; and Washington Post correspondent Thomas Ricks, with whom he has been working for over a decade, and whose recent best seller, Fiasco, was one of the most detailed accounts yet compiled of U.S. mistakes in Iraq. “There wasn’t much of a thought process in deciding to follow [Mr. Moyers] to Wylie,” Mr. Ricks told Off The Record via e-mail. “It was more a natural reaction—if you are going, then I will go with you, of course.”
Mr. Wylie’s stable of around 600 authors already includes such highbrow heavyweights as Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Samantha Power, Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis. (He can also count the estates of such late luminaries as Susan Sontag, Donald Barthelme and Saul Bellow as clients.) Mr. Wylie built that roster by systematically pursuing the best, most influential writers working—even if they already had representation. For his propensity to poach authors from smaller agents as soon as they came to prominence, Mr. Wylie earned the nickname “The Jackal.”
“Most agents have this unwritten code that another agent’s clients are off limits,” said one literary rep. “Most do. Some agents don’t, and king among those who don’t is Andrew Wylie.” Said another agent: “There is a persistent fear that your clients will go to Wylie.”
By contrast, the affable, gentle Mr. Moyers has made few enemies since he started his career at Doubleday in 1991, fresh out of The College of William and Mary and the Radcliffe Publishing Course, where he worked as an assistant to then-editor Jackie Onassis. Over the following decade and a half, he rose through the ranks—first as an associate editor at Scribner, then as a senior editor under Ann Godoff at the Random House imprint, and finally at Penguin Press, where he followed Ms. Godoff in 2003 when she was fired by Random House for not generating enough revenue.
The list of high-caliber nonfiction Mr. Moyers edited while at Penguin Press includes Al Gore’s Assault on Reason, which debuted at the top of the New York Times best-seller list, and an Alan Greenspan tell-all, to be published Monday, for which Mr. Moyers paid over $8 million. He also played a key role in winning for Penguin Press the kind of prestige and reputation for quality that until recently was enjoyed only by a handful of more storied houses like Alfred A. Knopf and Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
The loyalty from writers that Mr. Moyers has built, both at Penguin and elsewhere, say some in the industry, puts him in position to make inroads into other agent’s rosters. “It’s not ‘Binky’ Urban or Esther Newburg who are worried,” says one editor who used to work with Moyers, referring to two legendary reps at the massive talent agency ICM. Rather, the editor said, it’s the midlevel, independent agents who earn their living by occasionally striking gold, and can’t afford to lose their most promising clients.
To be sure, 30 of the 80 or so authors Mr. Moyers worked with at Penguin were already Wylie clients before Mr. Moyers came over. And he told Off the Record Monday that he has no intention of trying to lure others from their current representation—though he won’t rule out adding to the Wylie stable. “I am not making it my business to think in those terms or be predatory,” he said. “There is so much good work to do. I think, like all agents, if something happens organically—if one is approached, if something makes sense, then so be it. I’m not going to be morbidly squeamish in a kind of way that doesn’t make sense. But I am going to be straightforward and open.”
Mr. Moyers confessed to some “inner squishiness” in his personality—which might not seem a perfect fit for an agency run by Mr. Wylie—but he said he was ready to make adjustments. “Any time you make a leap like this into a new world, you have to think about the quality of life and the things about it that are going to go against the grain of your innate disposition, whatever that is,” Mr. Moyers said. “I think I have some squishy areas in my personality … aspects that will be tested.”
So, is Mr. Moyers signing up to become Jackal Junior? Or, as one competitor puts it: “The question for Scott is, if you swim with the sharks, are you going to become one of the sharks?”
Mr. Moyers mainly seems amused when confronted with such speculation. “I thank them for their concern, for their solicitude. I’m moved by their empathy,” he said. “I ask them to give me a soul X-ray a year from now, and if I have black spots on the lungs of my soul, then, you know, they can just rush me to the infirmary and fill me up with drugs. But I somehow think it’s going to be okay.”