“Mort and I are far from retiring,” Lynn Nesbit said on Friday afternoon. “It isn’t a question on the table at the moment. It really isn’t.”
The night before, one of the stars at the boutique literary agency Ms. Nesbit runs with Mort Janklow abruptly announced that he was leaving for a job at the global, multiplatform talent agency William Morris. Eric Simonoff, who represents Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri and others, had spent 18 years at Janklow & Nesbit. Apart from a stint as an assistant at Norton the year after he graduated from college, it was the only job he’d ever had. At 41, he was widely thought to be the prince of the firm, in line to one day take over for Ms. Nesbit and Mr. Janklow alongside his equally heavy-hitting colleague, Tina Bennett.
Precisely what such a takeover would potentially entail depends on who you ask, but until last week, the consensus assumption among publishing people was that the agency’s namesakes, 78-year-old Mort and 70-year-old Lynn, had been deliberately grooming Mr. Simonoff and Ms. Bennett, and would hand the reins to the agency over to them when they got tired of steering it.
Because of this, many found Mr. Simonoff’s sudden defection puzzling, and the motivations behind it have been intensely debated.
Though Mr. Simonoff could not be reached for comment, Ms. Nesbit said Friday it wasn’t really so complicated at all.
“I think what provoked him is the huge financial offer,” she said. “I think it’s as simple as money. He said they made him an offer he felt he could not refuse.”
She added, “He’ll be the only alpha male in William Morris’s literary department.”
Suzanne Gluck and Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, co-heads of the William Morris literary department, announced their new hire on Friday just as all of publishing prepared to pack into the New School’s Tishman Auditorium for the National Book Critics Circle Awards. The news appeared on The New York Times’ ArtsBeat blog under the headline, “A Star Book Agent’s New Home.” Therein, Ms. Gluck was quoted as saying Mr. Simonoff had been her “dream date” for years.
Three well-placed sources who would not speak for attribution said Ms. Gluck and Ms. Walsh (neither of whom would comment for this article) had been actively looking to add someone of Mr. Simonoff’s stature to their ranks for several years. Several industry people—knowledgeable ones, the lot of them, though obviously all too shy to speak on the record—said William Morris could use someone with literary sensibilities who can hit home runs with titles that skew more commercial than the high quality (but often narrowly targeted) stuff that Bill Clegg tends to do.
Publishing people were giddy when they heard about Mr. Simonoff’s job change last week, and not even because they were happy for him—though some were—but because it was surprising, and exciting, and an undeniable show of force by William Morris that no one really knew how to explain off the top of their heads. Editors, publishers, agents, everyone wanted to talk about it, and they got into work on Friday still drunk on the news and excited to start calling and emailing one another about it. People asked if a “dominant theory” had emerged, the question invariably coming out sounding hopeful, but also cautious, because no one really wanted the fun to end.
The last time anyone felt this way was in June, when News Corp. fired Jane Friedman. With all that had happened since—the wrenching reorganization of Random House, the closing of Collins—that felt like a lifetime ago.
“Was I shocked? No,” Ms. Nesbit said on Friday. “I was surprised but not shocked. I think Eric has to spread his wings. Maybe it was all too much like family.”
But what exactly was behind Mr. Simonoff’s defection? His colleagues in the industry were left scratching their heads over the weekend.
“There had to have been something material that prompted it,” one editor said. “It’s not something you would do just for the sake of it ‘I just want a change’— agents don’t do it.”
Was it as Ms. Nesbit said? Had William Morris just offered Mr. Simonoff a dizzying amount of money? Or was there more at work—like, say, unresolved succession issues at Janklow & Nesbit that might have caused the famously ambitious agent to lose his patience with the firm and seek out something more secure?
In a sense, there are two stories here, one about why Mr. Simonoff is joining William Morris, and the other about why he is leaving Janklow.
One theory is that he was tempted by all the perks that come with working for a large multimedia talent agency—namely, access to in-house film and TV agents who can help him not only by selling his adaptation-ready literary properties but also by giving him business whenever one of their celebrity clients wants to write a book.
In an interview Friday, former William Morris literary head Owen Laster, who retired from the firm after 46 years in 2006, said many of the opportunities a large organization with many branches offers are simply not possible at a small, prestige shop like Janklow & Nesbit. He offered that when he was agenting at WMA, he “personally handled many film and television deals” for his clients, and “very often” collaborated with people in other parts of the company.
“That office [Janklow & Nesbitt], although primarily literary, has a pretty wide base, but not like William Morris,” Mr. Laster said. “Their connection with CAA and other offices gives them power in those areas, but at William Morris it’s more direct—it’s our clients.”
While the possibility of multimedia domination may have certainly appealed to Mr. Simonoff, the real reason behind his decision to leave his longtime home probably had a lot more to do with the murky question of succession at Janklow & Nesbit and the sense of uncertainty that is clouding the agency’s future.
For one thing, Mr. Janklow is said to have thought seriously about selling the company over the years—and though he has denied it, he has reportedly put a price tag on it that was rebuffed by potential buyers. For another, there is the matter of Mr. Janklow’s 41-year-old son Luke, a former rock singer and current restaurant owner who has in recent years been doing some agenting for his father’s shop, and Ms. Nesbit’s daughter Priscilla Gilman—a recovering English professor who recently returned from a nine-month leave of absence during which she wrote a memoir about motherhood.
Did the presence of the young Mr. Janklow and Ms. Gilman signal to Mr. Simonoff that the agency would always remain a family business? That all the loyalty in the world wasn’t going to make it any more likely that he’d ever be made partner?
Nonsense, according to Ms. Nesbit: “I don’t think it was about succession,” she said. “I honestly, genuinely do not think it was about that.”
“I think Luke has many strings to his bow,” she added, referring to the young Mr. Janklow’s various non-literary pursuits, which also includes collecting guitars and cars. “I have a very strong alpha male here, you see, in Mort Janklow. Eric felt more comfortable with another younger guy here. I don’t think Luke and Priscilla were in any way a threat to him.”
Regardless of why it happened, Mr. Simonoff’s departure unmistakably leaves Janklow & Nesbit with a future even more uncertain than the one it was already looking forward to, especially considering that whatever finally convinced Mr. Simonoff to flee could conceivably convince Ms. Bennett to do the same.
Several people noted that Ms. Bennett and Mr. Simonoff are the only major players at the agency bringing in new clients and making spectacular sales with any regularity (Update, 5:15PM: It should be noted that just two weeks ago, Ms. Nesbit placed the journalist Andrew Meier’s The House of Morgenthau with Random House, and before that sold a memoir by young Iraq veteran Christopher Brownfield to Knopf). Mr. Simonoff has Ms. Lahiri and Edward P. Jones, for example, and in January, he showed his muscle when he sold Danielle Trussoni’s debut novel Angelology in a hotly contested auction for nearly $1 million. Ms. Bennett, in turn, represents Malcolm Gladwell, Fareed Zakaria, Laura Hillenbrand, Eric Schlosser and many others. Sure, the elder Mr. Janklow can still do a multimillion-dollar eight-book deal for Danielle Steele with his eyes closed when he wants to, and Ms. Nesbit is still putting up dizzying numbers with her Tom Wolfe and her Anne Rice sales. But as one publisher put it, “they’re not taking on new people. What’s the future?”
That publisher, along with other executives, speculated on Friday about whether Mr. Simonoff’s departure might inspire Ms. Bennett to look for other work, or whether it would instead have the effect of forcing some of the succession issues at the agency to the fore.
Though unlikely, Ms. Bennett could conceivably follow Mr. Simonoff to William Morris. Said one knowledgeable agent, “Jennifer Walsh used to say, ‘I’ll get Tina Bennett over here—Watch me.’”
Ms. Nesbit sounded cool as a cucumber when confronted with that scenario Friday. “I expect Tina to be here forever,” she said.
Ms. Bennett declined to comment for this article.