In April 2014, the death of the “peerless” literary agent Deborah Rogers shocked the book trade; an estimated 800 people were in attendance at a memorial held in her honour in October that year.
Shortly afterwards, the Deborah Rogers Foundation launched alongside its £10,000 Writers’ Award; and two years later, industry stalwart Gill Coleridge—chairman of literary agency Rogers, Coleridge & White—has launched a second major award in Rogers’ name, this time for rights professionals.
“I am very proud of this agency,” says Coleridge, whose publishing career spans five decades, while sitting in Rogers’ old office following a tour of the RCW office; the room is decked with wooden floors and books are shelved to the rafters. “You look around at all the books here and realise we’ve been involved in all these from start to finish. Somehow there’s a wonderful longevity about it and it’s so rewarding. Not every book is as successful as you would hope, but it continues to be a completely wonderful business to be involved with,” Coleridge says.
Grown from a staff of seven in 1987 to 28 now, in the company’s ranks are 12 agents including Peter Straus and Natasha Fairweather, who between them have “the most amazing list of clients”, such as Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan who have been with the agency “forever”. Coleridge credits Rogers with attracting this calibre of client to its stables, referring to her “uncanny eye for emerging young writers”. “They were attracted to her and she was also fiercely loyal to her authors,” Coleridge says. “That gave her her reputation and then other authors wanted to join and be part of that.”
She continues: “There was a lot of friendship in this office and it was run almost on a family basis. Deborah had this ability to make everyone feel cared for. It is this that led us to identify what to do when she died.”
Coleridge worked with Rogers for more than 25 years, between her 1987 departure from Anthony Sheil to found the RCW agency and the “seismic shock” of Rogers’death in 2014. Her late colleague’s talent for identifying potential in writers led Coleridge to set up the Deborah Rogers Foundation and launch the inaugural £10,000 Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award to help and support unpublished writers in their quest to finish their first manuscripts.
Last year the now biennial Writers’ Award went to Sharlene Wen-Ning Teo, a result Coleridge called “the perfect way for Deborah to be remembered”, the text being “something that is current, contemporary, relating to modern writing and not embalmed on a blue plaque on a building”. Teo’s début, Ponti, recently sold in the US for “a lot of money to a wonderful publisher [Simon & Schuster]”, Coleridge adds, hot on the heels of a seven-way UK publisher auction, won by Picador.
The foundation is now in the throes of its final calls to find a deserving recipient of the new £10,000 bursary it launched in October. It will give a young rights professional or literary agent—with between two and six years’ experience—the chance to spend eight weeks on work placements at eminent publishers and agencies, from the US to Australia, on a tailor-made worldwide tour. The award is particularly appropriate, not just because there is “nothing [in terms of awards] for anybody in rights”, Coleridge claims, but because since RCW’s earliest days, it has given desk space to people who wanted to get into publishing which, if anything, she claims is far more difficult today. Those who have passed through RCW’s doors include Mark Bell, BBC commissioning editor for arts; Hannah Westland, publishing director at Serpent’s Tail; John Murray publisher Mark Richards; and Michael Bhaskar, co-founder of digital publisher Canelo.
“One of Deborah’s defining qualities was her total commitment to supporting and nurturing those with talent, whether a new author or someone within the agenting and publishing community,” Coleridge has said. “Selling and managing rights is at the heart of our business, so we set up this bursary for exceptional young professionals who are already working in the field to help them develop their contacts and their understanding of international publishing at a crucial point in their careers.” The deadline for entries is Friday (16th December).
Coleridge herself boasts an impressive resumé, counting among her own clients both prize-winning novelists and commercial bestsellers, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winners Richard Ford and Donna Tartt, Booker prize-winners Anne Enright and James Kelman and Booker-shortlistee Zoë Heller. A former Association of Authors’ Agents president, she has also experienced first-hand the effect of the rise of the internet on the market, remembering the 1980s and ‘90s as an easier time, one in which “you could make things happen”—with significantly larger advances available. The erosion of publishers’ profit margins as a result of the decline of the high street has not blindsided her to the opportunities in today’s climate, though. “I think the role of an agent is to see the positive in every change and to try to make sure they are taking advantage. There was justified anxiety over the rise of Amazon’s own publishing, but one has to accept that is the way the market has changed. And you have to make sure that, if there is an opportunity your authors are going benefit from, you exploit it.”
The first book fest
Coleridge’s pragmatic approach was put to good use even before she came to agenting. In 1971, as publicity manager for the Bedford Square BookBang, an open-air exhibition of books organised by the late Martyn Goff, it was her job to get people to flock to Bloomsbury, notwithstanding “zero budget” and, infamously, unrelenting rain. Unphased, Coleridge succeeded in attracting over 50,000 visitors, and today the event is often cited as the UK’s first-ever literary festival. “I know this sounds completely unbelievable, [but] it was the first festival where authors were being invited so they could meet the public,” Coleridge recalls. “It was an extraordinary group of people. We had Spike Milligan and Barbara Cartland, who turned up in a pink Rolls Royce...it was absolutely hilarious. There were some wonderful moments, like bringing Michael Holroyd a book back because a visitor said it was damaged and they wanted their money back. It was the beginning of the interface between authors and their public,” she says, adding: “We all just wore wellington boots and [brought] umbrellas.”
Coleridge graduated to publicity director at Chatto when it was independent, prior to its merger with The Bodley Head and Jonathan Cape. Her first agenting job came in 1973 at Anthony Sheil, where she worked for the next 14 years, including with the late Gillon Aitken and Scottish agent Giles Gordon.
“I always wanted to work in publishing and I’ve been incredibly lucky,” says Coleridge, who, like Rogers, went to secretarial college rather than university. “As an agent, it is always about the writers and the books you love. The mistakes I’ve made are usually where I’ve taken on a book just because I think I can make money out of it. At the end of the day, you’ve got to love the writing and believe in the book. You’ve got to come in in the morning and know the one thing you want to do is to talk about the book and convince a publisher. And they don’t always agree with you.”
“It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing this job, it still is quite a raw business,” Coleridge adds. “If you really love a book and you send it out to a publisher and they don’t love it, it’s almost personal. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing this, you still get a huge kick out of selling something you think is good.”
The next big thing
Pressure is now on publishers like “it never was before”, she observes. “[Publishers] survived the e-book to a large extent but that still has eroded a lot of the traditional sales. We’re in a market where a bestseller can exceed unheard-of numbers. If a book is hugely successful it will sell more copies than any book has ever sold before,” she says. “Every publisher wants the next one, but they never know where it’s coming from until they’ve got it.”
Coleridge also says she thinks there is potential for writers to make “phenomenal sums of money” in today’s market, “but I also think it’s very, very tough for many ‘traditional’ writers, because the hardback, ‘traditional’ trade market is much smaller than it used to be,” she says. “Agents need to be quite creative and inventive, and make sure they are delivering across the board for their writers in every area of potential earnings, which is where overseas is important.”
The need for agents to “be global” is something Coleridge emphasises, and it is this element of the role, discovering crucial points of difference between different markets internationally, that she continues to find “absolutely fascinating”. In terms of the qualities the next generation of rights professionals need to get ahead, “curiosity” is key, says Coleridge, as is “initiative” and “a real love of books”. She adds: “The first questions [Rogers] would have asked [of aspiring agents] would be the same as I would: What writers do you like? What books do you like? If you’re interviewing somebody and you find you’re talking about their writers, you sense their heart is in the right place.”