As the book industry awaited word last week on the fate of AOLTW's book unit, there are signs that nervousness among agents is beginning to take a toll on the number of submissions the company sees. "There's a certain level of skittishness," said one well-known agent, which is leading to "not rushing into any deals with the company." It's of particular concern, said observers, because the company is strongly reliant on its frontlist.
To date, no authors are known to have left AOLTWBG as a result of the potential sale. And Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch said there has not been a dropoff in the number of books LB has signed up; he pointed to 10 acquisitions in the last two months, a number he said averages out to 60 per year, typical for the publisher. But even if the company has not slowed its pace of acquisitions, editors may be drawing from a smaller pool of proposals, with a number of agents interviewed by PW saying they have sent fewer projects to the house in the last two months.
Agents said that what's maintaining their faith in the company is the strong reputation of the executives who work there. But it is the same reputation, some agents added, that could prove to be a double-edged sword: it could prompt larger-than-usual author shifts if some of the publisher's executives leave the company under a new buyer. James Patterson, for example, AOLTWBG's biggest moneymaker, is said by insiders to be sufficiently loyal to CEO Larry Kirshbaum that were he to leave, Patterson would likely follow.
Publishers on the selling block have always engendered a certain amount of nervousness—and a decrease in proposals. But this situation stands out in a number of ways, agents said. AOLTWBG had an unusually strong year in 2002. Under normal conditions, agents would be turning there first, but with the murkiness, they're being forced to go to weaker houses. Consolidation, the pace of which has quickened in the last five years, has made things trickier for agents. "There are very few markets you can send books to where people can afford it, and [AOLTW] is one of them," said agent William Clark. Another agent said that because of the uncertainty, AOLTWBG "has slipped from the top tier all the way down the totem pole."
Most agents agree that if uncertainty over the company's fate continues much longer, future lists could be jeopardized, which could in turn make it less attractive for a buyer. Asked how much longer it would be before the publisher would seriously run that risk, one agent paused and said, "I think we're almost at that point."