Bill Clegg announced last month that he was leaving William Morris Endeavor to launch his own eponymous agency. The move for the sometime memoirist and lauded literary agent is both exciting and unnerving, he said. PW talked to Clegg about selling literary books for big money, going solo and if he's ready for his first Frankfurt with the Clegg Agency.
After eight years with William Morris Endeavor, you’ve left to start your own agency. Why now? And what’s the most exciting part? The scariest?
I’m turning 44 next month so basically it's now or never. The most exciting part is also the scariest: breaking away from what is safe and familiar toward the unknown. Lately my relationship to the unknown has been a friendly one, so the office (comprised of my assistant Chris Clemans and two brilliant interns) is much more excited and curious than afraid. Long may it stay that way. Secondly, and always, is the fear that the books I care about won’t be understood or celebrated as they arrive in the world. I have faith that worthy but misunderstood or ignored books can still prevail--and when they do fewer joys are as sweet--but authors have families to support and rent to pay and for them I hope for acclaim in their time rather than late-in-life or posthumously.
You’re known for representing literary fiction—your clients include Daniyal Mueenuddin and the poet Mary Jo Bang—and, more specifically, for being able to command big advances for books that, well, often seem like they wouldn’t command a big advance. Take the debut novel We Are Not Ourselves as an example. It came out last month and is now a bestseller. It’s also a book you represented, and sold for seven figures to Simon & Schuster at last year’s London Book Fair. How do you discern between the books that really are literary sleepers, and the ones that can command big money and, potentially, become bestsellers?
I wouldn’t even try. Also, when I read something for the first time it's usually many months--sometimes years--away from submitting to editors. So the advance it may instigate, then, is not on my mind. Also, despite how it may appear from a distance, agents don’t command anything really accept perhaps the attention of editors and publishers. After that, the impact the manuscripts will have on those first readers is a mystery. At least for me it is. I’m usually a wreck until the first offer comes in and then there is a certain managing of the weather. At that point it can be fun. But without the book and the necessary reactions to it, we command nothing.
What do you do think is the biggest misconception about your profession?
Probably the answer has something to do with the last question--this idea that agents have some kind of crystal ball or the ability to conjure careers and advances from the ether. For the most part, I think writers are probably the only ones who spend any time thinking about us or imagining into what we do, and when they do their ideas are likely hued with hope.
The Frankfurt Book Fair is just around the corner and is always a busy time for deal-making. Can you talk about any projects you’ll be representing in Germany during your first fair with your new agency?
I'm excited to talk about books that were published over the last few years that might not have had foreign sales right away. It’s these conversations with foreign publishers that make trips to Frankfurt and London worthwhile. The all-too-rare books that knock over most territories like dominoes within weeks of their U.S. sale are fun to manage but often don’t require a face to face conversation. As for new books just making their way into the foreign market, among others, I’m excited about Lauren Groff’s new novel Fates and Furies which is one of the most surprising and complex portraits of a marriage I’ve ever read; Ottessa Moshfeghs' debut novel, Eileen, which Penguin Press will publish next fall and her novella, McGlue, which won the 2014 Fence Fiction Prize, both evidence of an important and formidable new voice in fiction; and David Levithan’s Another Day, the brilliant follow-up to his international bestseller Every Day, is something we’ll be having fun sharing with his many continuing and new foreign publishers.