Agent Wonders: Why Did St. Martin’s Say No to Blago?

neyfakh rod blagojevich 1h Agent Wonders: Why Did St. Martin’s Say No to Blago? Jarred Weisfeld was just about ready to file his $10 million defamation suit against Macmillan Publishers when he brought Rod Blagojevich to their building to see if St. Martin’s Press, the big commercial unit there, might want to publish the former Illinois governor’s memoir.

“I was completely upfront with them,” the agent said recently. “I said, ‘Hey, look, I’m gonna be suing you guys in a few days—is this gonna have any effect on my client?’ They said the two things had nothing to do with each other.”

The meeting took place on Feb. 12. About two weeks later, on Feb. 24, Mr. Weisfeld filed his lawsuit. In it, the outraged agent alleged that Jaime Lowe’s Digging for Dirt, an unauthorized biography of the late rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard, published last fall by an imprint of Macmillan-owned Farrar, Straus and Giroux, contained “malicious, false, defamatory and anti-Semitic statements” about him. Mr. Weisfeld, who served as Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s manager from the time the rapper got out of jail in 2003 until he died of an accidental drug overdose in 2004, felt he had been unfairly portrayed in the book as an opportunistic kid taking advantage of a troubled man. 

Mr. Weisfeld is now 29. He grew up in Rockland County, where he was raised by a homemaker mom and a dad who made his living as one of the founders of Mudd Jeans. His first big job in entertainment was at VH1, where he worked as a production assistant on a couple of episodes of Driven before successfully pitching a reality show about Ol’ Dirty Bastard. This was after a stint as a day trader and some time working on the last N*SYNC tour, during which he met his wife.

Mr. Weisfeld opened his talent agency, Objective Entertainment, two years ago, and since then has sold memoirs by such pop culture figures as Saved by the Bell’s Dustin “Screech” Diamond and Robert Englund, the actor who played Freddy Krueger. Before he hooked up with Mr. Blagojevich, the only political book he’d ever worked on was People reporter Lorenzo Benet’s biography of Sarah Palin.

Objective is housed in a building in Chinatown on a block heavily populated by gift shops and jewelry stores. Mr. Weisfeld recently hosted Pub Crawl in the break room there, in order to discuss his lawsuit against Macmillan and the odd experience he had when he brought Rod Blagojevich into their offices in the Flatiron Building for a meeting.

“I’m thinking to myself, ‘I can’t believe I’m in this building! After what these guys did to me—this is crazy!’” Mr. Weisfeld said of his visit. “I was like, ‘This is the most selfless thing an agent can do, come to a building where they say all this nasty anti-Semitic stuff about you in a book.’”

Mr. Weisfeld said he took the meeting at Macmillan because he’d been given reason to believe that St. Martin’s would pay “big money” for the book.

And he said he came away from the meeting thinking that the deal was all but done. The next morning, according to Mr. Weisfeld, St. Martin’s editor Elizabeth Beier called and gave him the impression that the imprint was mulling an offer between $200,000 and $350,000. Mr. Weisfeld was ready to take it.

An hour later, though, according to Mr. Weisfeld’s account, he got another call from Ms. Beier. This time, he says, she told him St. Martin’s would not be making a cash offer after all, and asked him if he’d consider something like a profit share.

Mr. Weisfeld was angry, and didn’t understand what had happened. In an attempt to sort it out, he says, he called St. Martin’s publisher, Sally Richardson, and chief operating officer Steve Cohen—both of whom expressed enthusiasm for the Blagojevich book after the meeting—but failed to get a satisfying explanation from either. Ms. Richardson especially annoyed him. “She said, ‘I’ll take you out to lunch and you’ll forget about the whole thing,’” Mr. Weisfeld said, incensed. “She was talking to me like I was her kid! It was frustrating to me.”

The following Tuesday, Feb. 17, St. Martin’s reiterated their position, prompting Mr. Weisfeld to call up Macmillan CEO John Sargent and to register his displeasure for about an hour.

Ms. Richardson and Mr. Cohen both declined to answer questions, and like Ms. Beier and Mr. Sargent, Macmillan’s in-house attorney Paul Slevin did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

A senior-level employee at St. Martin’s who refused to speak for attribution said Mr. Weisfeld’s lawsuit against Macmillan had nothing to do with the decision not to pursue the Blagojevich book.

“A major publisher like St. Martin’s gets thousands of submissions and meets with hundreds of authors during the year, and due to the economic realities of the publishing business, turns down the majority of them,” the employee said.

On March 2, it was announced that the West Coast–based independent Phoenix Books, which has previously published works by New York Times fabulist Jayson Blair and the German man who ate someone he met on the Internet, had acquired Mr. Blagojevich’s book for a “six-figure” sum.

Mr. Weisfeld, who believes Mr. Blagojevich to be “100 percent innocent,” said he was pleased with the outcome. “I’m very happy with Phoenix,” he said. “I think they were the right place.”

Macmillan has so far not issued any response to Mr. Weisfeld’s lawsuit.

lneyfakh@observer.com