Literary Drama Rivals ‘Entourage’

Literary superagent Richard Abate is free to begin ten-percenting for Endeavor Talent Agency after a federal judge on March 28th denied ICM’s bid to keep him from jumping ship to the rival agency, but the bickering over damages is only beginning.

It may have lost an agent, but ICM is seeking $10 million in damages, with the matter going to arbitration, according to a statement issued by the agency’s general counsel, Richard Levy, after the ruling.

During arbitration hearings, both ICM and Endeavor will turn over requested information and grill witnesses. At issue will be determining ICM’s share of commissions for books Abate represented that remain under contract to the agency.

It’s not just about the books anymore, of course. The case has been watched closely by those in the television and film sectors as well, and put a spotlight on rival agencies and their own cutthroat internal politics.

The battle was triggered when Abate rejected a three-year contract extension from ICM and announced in February that he was taking a job instead with Beverly Hills-based Endeavor, where he hoped to launch a New York lit office. ICM argued that Abate was obligated to not deal with competitors until his contract expired December 31st.

ICM also alleged that Abate had stolen trade secrets by e-mailing himself phone logs and contact lists from his office. Judge Peter Leisure rejected that argument in his March 28th ruling.

While that case was being heard, there was no shortage of dirty agency laundry coming out in court. Both sides accused the other of corrupt motives and were equally criticized by Leisure, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Abate was painted as a dishonest, opportunistic agent who resented a colleague’s promotion and purposely breached his contract, the paper said. His lawyers countered that ICM was financially stressed and losing its top agents to rival firms.

Abate claimed he was fired by ICM February 9th for turning down the contract extension and said the real reason he was being sued is because of a "desperation on their part, that ICM has had a brain drain for the last 10 years," the Times reported.

He also pointed to ICM’s decision to locate new offices in midtown Manhattan, calling it "a low-rent neighborhood."

The reason the dispute hadn’t been settled out of court, Abate reportedly told the court, is because "the L.A. office [of ICM] is in an acrimonious war with Endeavor, and they chose to sue me in a vindictive manner because they could not get enough money out of Endeavor."

ICM’s attorneys got in their fair share of jabs at Abate, saying he lied about his intentions to move to Endeavor even when colleagues specifically asked him about his plans.

"The word ‘Endeavor’ never came up," the Times quoted Esther Newberg, Abate’s former ICM colleague who runs the agency’s literary division. "He said, ‘Don’t worry. I wouldn’t go to the William Morris Agency.’ There was no talk of Endeavor, a major competitor with no book department.

"And we all know what’s in the contract he signed. You don’t go to a competitor that’s trying to form a book division."

Though warring agencies, like most civil litigants, generally try to settle their differences out of court, it doesn’t appear ICM will be that amicable in the coming arbitration.

After Judge Leisure ruled against ICM’s request for an injunction, general counsel Levy told the Times, "We are disappointed with the court’s decision. However, on behalf of our clients who rely on our efforts to protect their privacy and enforce the integrity of their contracts, [Abate’s] blatant misconduct compelled us to act."

In his decision, Leisure reportedly noted that ICM’s relationships with literary clients "do not take the form of contracts for a fixed term. Rather … ICM represents a client for a particular book or article only. … authors decide anew with each project whether to engage ICM or another agency for that project."

Observers of the case have noted that the suit could be more about making a statement about the importance of high-profile client rosters than it is about a breach of contract. Abate’s Rolodex reportedly contains at least 50 clients including bestsellers Dale Peck, Evan Wright, James Swanson, Ian Kerner, Yiyun Lia and Lisi Harrison, according to the Times.