Outside the bubble: Natalie Jerome on the creation of her agency in Newport

Outside the bubble: Natalie Jerome on the creation of her agency in Newport

You would be hard pressed to find someone who has had a better start in agenting than Natalie Jerome. Just 18 months after she became one of the founders of Aevitas Creative Management UK, Jerome has inked a string of eye-popping deals—including selling actor David Harewood’s memoir to Bluebird in a 14-publisher auction, and overseeing a seven-publisher contest (won by Macmillan Children’s Books) for Sir Lenny Henry’s first children’s books. Jerome also earned an Agent of the Year shortlisting at this year’s British Book Awards.

She has done this all—take a deep breath and hold tight to your flat whites, London metropolitan elites—from her base in Newport, Wales. While there are certainly some Welsh agents in the UK trade (Curtis Brown’s 2019 Agent of the Year winner Cathyrn Summerhayes springs to mind), they tend to be London-based, and Literature Wales has said that Jerome is the only agent working in the country.

Of course, Jerome is hardly an industry neophyte. Prior to ACM, she had a 20-year publishing career, half of which was spent at HarperCollins, most of it commissioning commercial non-fiction. Some of her huge hits include titles from George Best, One Direction, Little Mix and Professor Steve Peters. She was named in 2018’s The Bookseller 100, our annual list of the trade’s top movers and shakers, while she was the acquisitions and publishing director at Bonnier.

After she left Bonnier, Jerome says she “didn’t consciously make the decision [to switch to agenting]. I think it was just the speed at which people approached me; those that were talking to me right away happened to be agencies. This was pre-pandemic and I was already thinking about flexible working, too. I have a kid and I really love being in Newport—it’s my home town, it’s where my family is, and agenting gave me more flexibility.”

Her agency was created by the merger of Toby Mundy Associates with ACM US, the American firm which reps the likes of Riley Sager, Cheryl Strayed, the estate of Louisa May Alcott and a raft of celebrities for their book projects, including Ted Danson, Amy Schumer, Jim Carrey and, most excitingly for this author, 1990s indie rocker Liz Phair. Being on the ground floor of a brand-new business appealed, as did ACM’s internationalism. Jerome explains: “I liked ACM because it was transatlantic... I had left London and was trying to establish a creative life here in Wales, and I thought I might need that sort of international outlet. Increasingly the people I was working with in the last few years in publishing were global talents; that’s where my head was. So I thought, maybe it would help to be able to draw on expertise from an American arm as opposed to just literary London.”

It was not a snap, post-Bonnier decision to decamp to Newport (which Jerome describes as “pretty much like ‘Gavin & Stacey’”). She bought her house in Newport 15 years ago because she was perpetually shuttling back and forth on the M4 from London to visit family and friends back home. She argues that being partly outside the London bubble—and by being Black, Welsh and working-class when the vast majority of her peers were white, English and privately educated—brought her a fresh perspective which has stood her in good stead throughout her career.

Her first big success, fresh out of university and after a couple months as a bookseller at Dillon’s, was Best’s memoir Blessed, which she acquired at Ebury, with the idea coming from her gran. Jerome says: “I was back home and my grandmother was talking about [Best], about how he was the David Beckham of his day but now was mostly famous for always being drunk on the front pages of the tabloids. She said: ‘There’s a brilliant story here.’ This is what I mean about it being good for publishers to think outside London, because ideas come from everywhere. My Mauritian grandmother in Newport sparked in me an idea for a book that sold half a million copies.”

She was encouraged to acquire Best’s book by her boss Jake Lingwood, the long-time Ebury deputy m.d. who now runs the Octopus imprint Monoray—and who imparted some useful advice. Jerome says: “He pushed me to reach out to people, telling me that a bestseller could be a cold call away. It’s something I used throughout my career, from an acquiring editor to now. One of the first things I did as an agent was call David Harewood. I didn’t know David. He didn’t know me. But I had seen his documentary on race and mental health, and thought no high- profile person was really talking about this in a meaningful way, and that there could be a great book here.”

Though her career has largely been in commercial non- fiction, it was not exactly her first love. “I don’t really go to bed reading a book about the latest boy band,” she says. “When I look back at it now, and this was more by accident than design, it was a survival strategy. As a Black girl in the industry, I thought I didn’t have the luxury of commissioning literary fiction, which at a push might sell 5,000 copies. I quickly worked out that I needed to acquire books that could sell lots and lots of copies. And to a certain extent that is still my mindset, part of my brain is saying: ‘This could all end right now.’”

As Jerome builds her list, she is not necessarily going to be focusing on non-fiction: “Whether it’s non-fiction, fiction or children’s, I’m looking for voices and people who are game-changers, people who can move the needle culturally. And who can last. Lenny [Henry] would never say this because he’s too shy about it, but I wanted to work with him on his children’s books because I think he’s going to be the next Roald Dahl, someone who is going to still be in print in 100 years’ time.

“I’m not going to be just working with Black and non-white writers. But I think for Black talent, just being present in storytelling is an act of resistance. Or being present in the publishing industry is an act of resistance. Historically we’ve been excluded, and even legally denied the right to read and write. So we don’t have our Shakespeares or Miltons or Hardys; we’re building our canon now.”

A wider web
It was important for Jerome not just to look east to London, but to become fully ensconced in the Welsh publishing scene. One of the first things she did after leaving Bonnier was join the Literature Wales board, and this year she is spearheading Representing Wales, a new development programme by the arts body for writers of colour. Jerome also praises the regional diversity push by the big publishers, accelerated by the pandemic, but does wonder at an omission: “It was great to see the stories of offices opening in Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh... but I was thinking: ‘What about Cardiff?’ I mean, Wales is a whole country and there is a lot to offer here.”

She adds: “I am grateful for the [Nibbies] shortlisting because I think it shows that you can be a successful agent from Wales, or anywhere outside London. I do occasionally get someone saying: ‘So when are you coming back [to London]?” The answer is never. I have a kid in school. We live here. This is my home.”

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