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New chapter in lit snits.

HOLLYWOOD Book agents and publishers often grumble about the star system that's poisoned their business, leading bestselling writers to expect huge advances, ridiculous perks and the freedom to exit a contract if they don't like the terms.

Traditionally, when agents and publishers got tough with writers, they did so behind closed doors. But lately, a number of quarrels have become ugly public spats, and it's the agents and publishers that have come out swinging.

Random House just rejected the latest draft of "Citizen Girl," the follow-up to "The Nanny Diaries" by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. After receiving a reported $3 million advance the authors may now have to pay it back.

Bestselling crime writer Edna Buchanan has settled a lawsuit brought by agent David Vigliano, who claimed he never received the commission for a book deal he brokered on her behalf.

The William Morris book office is fielding complaints from writers over new language in its client agreements, granting the agency more control.

The old author/agency agreements appointed WMA the exclusive agent for a book for the duration of contracts covered by the agreement, plus one year. The current agreement extends that term to the life of copyright--typically 50 years after the author's death. That means that if WMA negotiates a deal for a book--say, a sequel to James Patterson's No. 1 bestseller "Big Bad Wolf"--and the book goes out of print, if a new agent places the book with a new house, WMA still gets a commission.

WMA isn't the only agency seeking to protect itself from a revolving-door business in which institutional loyalty matters less and less. But the WMA contracts are raising eyebrows at a time when writers are especially antsy about their ability to choose their own career paths.

"It's a difficult area for most writers," says Authors Guild exec director Paul Aiken. "It's hard to negotiate with your agent."

The days of authors staying with their agents for decades is long gone, thanks to rising advances and the expanding menu of intellectual property rights at stake. Writers are now more choosy about their reps. Take McLaughlin and Kraus, who sold 2 million copies of "The Nanny Diaries" and placed film rights with Miramax, then fired two successive agents in short order before signing with William Morris.

"Citizen Girl" was bought by former Random House editor-in-chief Ann Godoff, who decamped to Putnam last year and brought several authors with her.

But not these two. According to the New York Observer, the authors are "difficult and demanding," requiring celeb perks like hair and makeup stylists.

WMA's author/agency agreements aren't likely to land the agency in court. But they point up a distinction between New York book agencies and their Hollywood counterparts.

The work of Hollywood agents is strictly regulated by guild laws. But book agents aren't licensed or regulated. Anybody can do it, and standards and practices vary from shop to shop.

Publishing may still be the more gentlemanly biz, but when it comes to the percentery game, New York is still the Wild West.

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Title Annotation:Inside Moves
Author:Bing, Jonathan
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 16, 2004
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