Flying a United flag

<p>In their first interview since leaving PFD, the United Agents Books team tell The Bookseller how the extraordinary saga has changed them, and about their plans for the UK&rsquo;s largest-ever start-up agency.</p>
<p>&quot;The inmates are taking over the asylum&quot;. So declared Metro Pictures chief Richard A Rowland when he heard that Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks were setting up their own Hollywood &shy;studio, United Artists.</p>
<p>Nearly 90 years later, a group of London entertainment and literary agents, similarly disillusioned with life at corporate PFD (formerly Peters Fraser &amp; Dunlop), have taken fate into their own hands with the formation of United Agents. Depending on which side you're on, Rowland's observation is either still deadly accurate, or should be updated to describe how the sanest people have in fact escaped the asylum.</p>
<p>And the tale of PFD and United Agents has indeed been about sides. City money versus old-world style; public versus private ownership; new upstarts versus the agenting aristocracy.</p>
<p>Now, in their first interview since leaving PFD, the heads of United Agents Books, Caroline Dawnay and Simon Trewin, together with their colleague and distinguished agent Pat Kavanagh, try to play down the personal elements of the extra&shy;ordinary saga. But they do make clear that they were implacably opposed to PFD parent group CSS Stellar, and describe how the atmosphere had become so poisoned that a clean &shy;severance was the only option.</p>
<p>&quot;There was one moment in the whole process when I looked around the building and thought: 'What defines where I&rsquo;m working?' &quot; Trewin recalls. &quot;I realised it was my relationships with these 75 people [who have formed United Agents]. PFD was about relationships, and those relationships were going to be di&shy;luted by what else was going on. We all &shy;wanted to work together, so we decided to regroup elsewhere. We&rsquo;ve achieved our aim.&quot;</p>
<p>Drawing the trio on details of exactly&shy; &quot;what else was going on&quot; is tricky. Still scarred by the experience, and with serious legal claims in the hands of the lawyers, questions about the sequence of events at PFD are met by protracted silences.</p>
<p>It is easy to forget that at the height of the frenzy in October, Dawnay was among 11 agents fired for gross misconduct&mdash;a charge she vehemently rejects, but which was nonetheless a deeply unsettling experience. But what, I ask, was at the heart of the clash?</p>
<p>Kavanagh points to a fundamental problem with the London Stock Exchange status of CSS Stellar, owners of PFD since 2001. She argues that it is &quot;inappropriate&quot; for a literary agency to be owned by a third party or to be publicly listed, &quot;because you can't be thinking about what&rsquo;s happening to the share price, or whether shareholders are going to be cross with you. All that matters is doing the right job for your &shy;writers, even if it means turning something down that&rsquo;s very lucrative.&quot; Trewin adds: &ldquo;Look at EMI or even Bloomsbury&mdash;as soon as you become a public company it changes.&quot;</p>
<p><b>In a spin</b></p>
<p>The months of intense media coverage, counter-briefings and communications breakdowns took their toll. &ldquo;As an agent, you want 100% of your energy going into your job, rather than worrying about what&rsquo;s going on outside your office door,&rdquo; Trewin says. &ldquo;Now that we own the business, of course there are pressures, but when I come into work in the morning it&rsquo;s all about what I am going to do for my authors rather than worrying about corporate structures.&rdquo;</p>
<p>But isn&rsquo;t it all too easy to blame the ownership? Doesn&rsquo;t United Agents still need to make a profit, give a return to investors? &quot;No&mdash;we largely own ourselves,&quot; Dawnay declares. Eschewing external investors or venture capitalists, the start-up funds have been raised by staff taking stakes in the company&mdash;no individual has contributed more than &pound;100,000&mdash;and a supportive bank.</p>
<p>Yet surely agents, whose very existence is about cutting deals, can&rsquo;t complain about business realities? &quot;The best agents never think about money, they think about their clients and doing the right thing for them,&quot; Trewin insists. &quot;It&rsquo;s about forming the right relationships and getting them with the right publisher, and the money then follows.&quot;</p>
<p>I press them to answer one persistent accusation: that having accepted &pound;12m for the business from CSS in 2001 (albeit largely in the form of now devalued shares), their management buyout offer of &pound;4m was far too low (CSS chairman David Buchler accused them of &ldquo;corporate robbery&rdquo;). &quot;That&rsquo;s a very partial interpretation,&quot; Kavanagh retorts. &quot;But perhaps it made CSS feel better to present it that way.&quot;</p>
<p>The wider issue seems to have been about a divisive atmosphere that had crept in. &ldquo;We&rsquo;d all previously worked in immense trust,&rdquo; Dawnay says. &ldquo;If someone was given a much bigger salary than me, I knew there was good reason for that. In a curious way, we&rsquo;re all competing with one another, but we had learned how to find a level.&rdquo;</p>
<p>That trust held during the exodus, with not a single agent poached by a rival agency&mdash;much to the astonishment of the lawyers involved. &ldquo;I had one very attractive offer,&rdquo; Kavanagh says, &ldquo;But I didn&rsquo;t consider it at all because it would have felt disloyal to think only of my personal trajectory.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Inevitably, the name Caroline Michel&mdash;who arrived as c.e.o. last September&mdash;gets raised, but the trio point out the long history of the thwarted buyout bid. &ldquo;It would have happened had God Almighty come to run PFD,&rdquo; Dawnay says. Yet the appointment, and the aggressive behaviour of CSS, hastened the exodus. &quot;The decision to leave was made easier by a new ethos descending. It was very interesting to see how quickly the whole spirit of a place can change. If CSS had been cleverer, they might have kept, say, 15 agents, but now we&rsquo;ve nearly all gone.&rdquo;</p>
<p>In publishing terms, it was widely assumed that the agents were quietly&shy; sitting on promising projects for the final few months, but they deny this: &quot;You can't say to an author: &lsquo;Please don&rsquo;t have a good book idea until I&rsquo;ve left,&rsquo;&thinsp;&rdquo; Dawnay says. &ldquo;It was more important to get the money in for them. Although one does grieve about where [the agents&rsquo; commission] went.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The prospect of clients who moved with their representatives to United Agents giving 15% of their backlist income to PFD in perpetuity is still unthinkable to many. Indeed back-door negotiations between UA co-chairman Peter &shy;Bennett-Jones and CSS may see a settlement within months.</p>
<p><b>Off the coals</b></p>
<p>The trio are much more bubbly when we move on to the plans for their new business, effusing about the camaraderie of starting afresh. &ldquo;We&rsquo;ve walked on coals and now we&rsquo;re out the other side,&rdquo; Kavanagh declares. They want to counter the bitterness of the last year: &ldquo;We&rsquo;ve all come together because we want to, not because we were unable to stay at PFD,&quot; Trewin emphasises. &quot;This isn&rsquo;t just PFD moving addresses, this is a completely new company, and a new way of doing business.&quot;</p>
<p>The trio are easy to caricature: Dawnay is the matronly auntie figure, Kavanagh is brilliantly batty, and Trewin is the sharp, straight-talking player. They do seem to have developed a chattier rapport by swapping their comfy PFD office nests for an open-plan temporary space. &quot;The danger with a group of agents is that everyone works in a vacuum,&quot; Trewin says. &quot;There&rsquo;s a bit of danger, of edge, to what we are doing now that we own the company.&quot;</p>
<p>The practical challenges of starting from scratch have also had an effect. Dawnay recalls &ldquo;dark moments&rdquo; in the first week when she couldn&rsquo;t even find an envelope. &ldquo;It has made us a bit more humble,&rdquo; she says. &ldquo;People used to think of us as being rather a toffee-nosed place. We&rsquo;re not any more&mdash;we&rsquo;ve been through the slough of despond, and we know how much we owe [authors] for sticking with us.&rdquo; They claim that 99% of authors have transferred.</p>
<p>But the &ldquo;edge&rdquo; that Trewin refers to must be all too real: with no backlist and residual income, the books team is financially exposed. That&rsquo;s the advantage of working alongside acting and film specialists, who generate faster cashflow up front. And despite the time lapse since their last pay cheques from PFD, they have taken salary cuts and not yet paid themselves bonuses. &ldquo;We&rsquo;ve all taken a hit,&rdquo; Kavanagh declares.</p>
<p>The move to &quot;one big mosh pit&quot;, as Trewin describes it, has also transformed the book team&rsquo;s relationships with those other departments, making actors&rsquo; agents more likely to suggest book ideas, or literary agents able to lean on the digital contracts expertise of their film colleagues. Ironically, this is moving towards Michel&rsquo;s vision of a cross-media agency, although Kavanagh pulls an amused face when that idea is mentioned. &ldquo;If our authors only want to write books, they should be allowed to,&rdquo; Dawnay declares.</p>
<p>Despite the financial trauma of being torn from the backlist, leaving behind the endless filing cabinets of contracts and estates has been liberating. Dawnay declares she has taken on three authors in the last month&mdash;a record for her. But surely it&rsquo;s a dangerous time to be doing so, with publishers cutting lists? &ldquo;Publishers are still as excited about new authors as they ever were,&rdquo; Trewin responds. &ldquo;The challenge is to get them to take a duty of care over the third book if the first or second haven&rsquo;t taken off. The danger is an industry blood-lust for new things.&rdquo;</p>
<p>In a recent <i>Guardian</i> article about Chaplin&rsquo;s United Artists, David Thomson traced how after several decades of film classics its en&shy;ergy ran out, and it was eventually absorbed into the studio system. But he also proposed a 90th birthday wish: &ldquo;That the jokes about the idiots and the asylum be retired, and the lesson learned that the most creative &shy;people in the business should do all they can to look after each other. No one else is going to do it.&rdquo; A lesson that already seems to have been taken to heart by the United Agents.</p>
<p>&nbsp;</p>
<p><span style="color: rgb(128, 0, 0);"><b>THE FACTS ABOUT UA</b></span></p>
<p><b><img width="100" height="100" align="left" alt="" src="/documents/UserContributed/image/UA_grab.jpg" />Management team:</b> Lindy King and Peter Bennett-Jones (joint chairman), St John Donald (m.d.)</p>
<p><b>Number of agents:</b> 35</p>
<p><b>Total staff:</b> 75</p>
<p><b>Divisions: </b>Books, Actors, Film/TV/Theatre</p>
<p><b>Books heads: </b>Simon Trewin and Caroline Dawnay</p>
<p><b>Books agents: </b>Pat Kavanagh, Robert Kirby, Charles Walker, Rosemary Canter, Rosemary Scouler, James Gill, Anna Webber, Sarah Ballard, Jessica Craig and Jane Willis (foreign rights)</p>
<p><b>Key authors: </b>Nick Hornby, Anthony Horowitz, John Boyne, Julian Barnes, Justin Cartwright, Scarlett Thomas, Joanna Trollope, Ruth Rendell, Nicki French</p>
<p><b>Website: </b><a href="http://www.unitedagents.co.uk">www.unitedagents.co.uk</a></p>
<p><b>Offices: </b>Currently at 130 Shaftesbury Avenue, moving to Lexington Street W1</p>