13 March 2019

Gordon Wise: ‘In publishing, there are all sorts of meanings to the word literary’

Gordon Wise agent
by Gordon Wise From the Agents

Gordon Wise started his publishing career as a bookseller, before going on to become an editor and then a publishing director at companies including Pan Macmillan and John Murray/Hachette. He joined Curtis Brown in 2005, and as a literary agent he represents a wide variety of brilliant non-fiction authors as well as a number of fantastic novelists. 

Gordon will be taking to the CBC blog every once in a while to talk about exciting industry news, and the novels that he is reading and representing, in this blog series ‘Bookwise (mostly)’. This week Gordon digs into the sometimes blurry distinctions between literary and commercial fiction…

A few years ago I met with a well-established writer to talk about the next stage in her career. She said that while she had respect for what I did, she couldn’t help but say:  ‘But, you’re not the most literary of literary agents, are you?’

There are all sorts of meanings to the word ‘literary’, within and without the world of publishing. Sometimes it’s said so self-importantly that you think the speaker’s actually using a capital ‘L’.

When I started working in publishing I realised that most people in editorial wanted Literary lists. The Picadors and Knopfs of this world published all the sorts of books these people wanted to define their careers by. The number of copies those books actually sold didn’t seem to matter as much as whether the books mattered.

It struck me that a fast track to getting ahead could be to focus on an area where there was less competition: commercial non-fiction. To this day my list embraces a lot of books from the world of entertainment, and classic genres like true crime or military adventure.

When you work in a publishing house you tend to end up with a label – you’re ‘the woman who does sports books’; or ‘the guy who specialises in self-help’; or romance; or adventure; or sci-fi. As an agent, you can back any horse you believe in, as long as you’re confident of making the right match with the right editor, the best deal, a correct assessment of the needs of that kind of book, and have conviction about it.

In ‘switching sides’ I gained the joy of helping to publish fiction as well as non-fiction, bringing together my tastes and contacts and experience together to support the right opportunities.

So, as a non-Literary literary agent, how did I come to represent some dazzling literary writers? Well, for starters, I don’t need to write the books! But I know how to sell them, and how to help authors go about selling themselves. My job sits at the sweet spot where creativity and commerce meet. And it involves making sure all your connections are live and switched on – not only with publishers, but with those writers who entrust you with their careers, and those who might introduce you to them …

I represent several Australian writers, partly because I am half Australian (and have kept my eyes open to market trends over there and my ears out for the fresh storytelling that’s coming up from Down Under) and partly because in Curtis Brown Australia we have a vibrant sister company at the forefront of talent spotting and client management there. My brilliant antipodean colleague Pippa Masson is the primary agent for both Hannah Kent and Sarah Schmidt. Thanks to Hannah’s and Burial Rites’ achievements this non-Literary literary agent represents a writer who has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for fiction, and she’s published by my former Pan Macmillan colleagues at Picador. Sarah’s dark Lizzie Borden-inspired debut, See What I Have Done, was scooped up by Tinder Press, the literary arm of Headline – once part of Hodder Headline, where I also worked – and a list whose commercial nous I have long respected.

I long admired Deborah Moggach for her screenwriting before I had the chance to represent her. Her cunning, comic and compassionate latest book, The Carer, comes out this July (Tinder Press).

I first read Janet Ellis‘ work when she participated in a three-month Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course. I was impressed by her writing and began pitching hard to allow her to take me on, and I later went on to pitch to sell her first two books, The Butcher’s Hook and How it Was to Two Roads, in an anonymised auction.

I also have the honour of representing several true American greats who epitomise for me how irrelevant the capital or lower case in literary is when you’re talking about books with cracking good stories. Bret Easton Ellis is entrusted to my professional care in the UK by the legendary Amanda ‘Binky’ Urban at ICM Partners in New York; our first new book together with him is his powerful first work of non-fiction, White, which will see him tour the UK after Easter. And Karl Marlantes’ staggering debut Matterhorn was introduced to me by Binky’s colleague Sloan Harris; we’ll be walking out together again later this year with the epic Deep River.

Some capital ‘L’ literary writers want to work on a broader canvas. D. J. Taylor had just moved to me when his then-current novel Derby Day was longlisted for the Booker. He didn’t need my help to get that attention, but what he wanted was an agent who could work with him in the round on his fiction and nonfiction, both of which have their commercial and literary ends, as well as be plugged in to a wider media platform. It’s been a great partnership, and his latest novel, Rock And Roll Is Life, comes out in paperback this May.

So literary agenting isn’t all about being ‘Literary’. Taste matters enormously, of course. But so does vision and confidence. And at the heart of what we do are connections, market awareness, business experience, the services an agency like Curtis Brown can offer, and a sense of career strategy – whether you’re a debut or a brand author looking to re-position yourself. To me, those are the things that Matter with a capital M.

Oh, and that well-established writer I mentioned at the beginning? We’ve been happily working together ever since we met.

If you’re writing a novel, check out the creative-writing courses – online or in London – currently open for applications or enrolment at Curtis Brown Creative.

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