Uber-Agent Jonny Geller has been a strong supporter of Curtis Brown Creative, since its conception, and has come in as a visiting speaker to more of our creative writing courses than anyone else. Here he talks to us about how he got started as an agent, what he’s looking for now, and what makes him really angry …
Jonny, you often tell a story to CBC’s students about how, when you were a young graduate in the 1990s, trying to make it as an actor and doing lowly jobs, you were inspired by the lovely white spines of your Picador paperbacks to go into publishing – and this led to the job as an agent’s assistant at Curtis Brown. How did you find your first ever client and how did you sell their book to a publisher?
Pure luck! Curtis Brown was a very different sort of company, back in those days. My boss had left the agency, and coming to work with no boss meant I was hiding from the MD every day, hoping he wouldn’t notice that I was still there without anyone to actually work for … While doing my best to keep a low profile, I stumbled on a manuscript called Acts of Revision by Martyn Bedford, a journalist from the Bradford and Telegraph Argus, and read it in one sitting! It was about a man who finds his old school reports in his attic and decides to take revenge on his school teachers. Every chapter title was a different subject – Geography, Maths, etc – and I just loved the wicked humour and the nerve wracking tension of this warped thriller. It also appealed to my sales instinct of always selling something you can describe in ten words. I marshalled my acting skills, took a deep breath and called four top publishers, saying “hello, I’m the new agent at Curtis Brown” – (not true) – “and I have a book you need to see. It will solve your budget problems for next year.”
I left work that day feeling sick and spent a sleepless weekend playing over in my head the moment the MD calls me into his office to fire me. When I got back to work – hiding behind my desk again – I noticed flashing lights on my answer machine and heard four publishers say they had read the manuscript over the weekend and all loved it. I was off! By the end of the week, the journalist who was earning £75 a week as a local reporter had banked £500,000 and deals in the US and around the world. And I’d become instantly addicted to agenting.
There is a somber coda to this story, though: A year later, when the book was published, I got a call from the publisher saying the book was not going to work. I was crestfallen. The reason? The terrible massacre at the Dunblane school had happened that week and nobody was going to read a thriller about revenge in a school. Real events …
Fast forward to 2018 and you are now one of the most well-known literary agents in the UK publishing industry, representing such stellar authors as John le Carré, Willliam Boyd, Tracy Chevalier, David Mitchell, Nigella Lawson and Nelson Mandela. Can you tell us the most important lesson you’ve learned, across the years, about how to be a really good literary agent?
Passion. If you don’t believe it, nobody will. As agents, we are the beginning of the chain of enthusiasm, and we need to sell the author’s vision to the publisher, who, in turn, has to sell it to the retailer, who has to sell it to us, the reader. If I don’t have a singular and consistent vision and strategy, along with a complete belief in my author’s talent, how can I expect others to? I feel personally responsible for every book I represent – and although I have learned not to expect success with every one – once I take someone on, we are in it together.
Although you have a prestigious client list, you still take on and champion new authors, including several former CBC-students, such as Nicholas Searle, whose first novel The Good Liar is currently being filmed with Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren – and Rae Del Bianco, whose debut Rough Animals comes out this summer. When you pick up a manuscript from a new writer (and we’re talking here about a manuscript which is good enough to mean that your assistant has already read it and has recommended you take a look …) – what is it that you’re looking to find? What really grabs your attention in an exciting new debut?
I’m at the stage now where I want books that will change my world view or move me in a way that only a book can. Having worked with le Carré for so long now, and learned so much from writers like Will Boyd, David Lodge and Howard Jacobson, I ask myself the following questions:
- Does the writer have a unique personal style?
- How am I feeling as I read and most importantly, what am I left feeling at the end
- Who could I recommend this book to?
- Would I pay £15 for this if my best friend recommended it to me?
- It doesn’t have to be flawless, but are there moments that stay with me after the last page? Visual imprints or emotional points?
And what is most likely to make you decide not to read beyond the first few pages?
Dullness. If it is pedestrian writing or familiar plots or lazy in any way, I leave it alone.
Can you give us one piece of advice for a new writer looking to find an agent?
Believe in yourself and remember that nobody is paid to read your book. You have to persuade them and invite them to. Be charming, be confident and be determined.
And lastly, we’ve heard this week that the Quick Reads program, coordinated by the Reading Agency – which has for 12 years commissioned accessible books by well-known authors to help adult literacy – is to end due to a lack of sponsorship. As a supporter of this scheme, can you tell us what writers, readers and industry professionals can do to help save it?
I find this utterly depressing. We need to galvanise all writers to fight for this – not just those who have enjoyed taking part in it. The potential loss of this program is an assault on our culture and another signal that books and authors are not worth fighting for. The Creative Industries brought in £92 billion of revenue last year, with the publishing part a good 10-15% of that. We are our culture and our creativity. I’m so angered by the idea that the Arts just happen anyway, and don’t need real support. Let’s fight them on social media!
Take a look at our selective entry novel writing courses or our series of 6-week online courses for all-comers at different stages of the novel writing process: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel.