Gemma Cooper breezes into our Friday morning meeting at a coffee shop looking fresh and lively, but she says she does not particularly feel it. The previous night was the Waterstones Children’s Book of the Year Awards, and the agent had two authors shortlisted: Sophie Anderson and P G Bell.
Alas, neither Anderson or Bell took home the prize but Usborne—which publishes both authors in the UK—was justly proud and took the shortlistees and Cooper out for a celebratory night out on the town, which ended in the wee hours at a bar serving cocktails in conches. She says: “You’re not going to do a celebrity interview thing, like that Johnny Depp one a few years ago. So you’ll begin with: ‘Cooper arrives at the café hungover and dishevelled...’”
“No,” I answer. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
The Bent Agency (TBA) agent has plenty of reasons to celebrate. Eight years on from leaping into the industry she is hitting her stride, and is one of the hottest children’s agents on both sides of the Atlantic. Her roster of 36 clients has an enviable blend of prize-winners and bestsellers, including: Jessica Townsend, whose Nevermoor has been sold into 38 languages; Robin Stevens, author of the surging Murder Most Unladylike series; and Mo O’Hara, Cooper’s first ever client, whose My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish books have sold close to two million units in the US.
Cooper rides into this Bologna with a monster book: B B Alston’s Amari and the Night Brothers, pitched as “Nevermoor meets ‘Kingsmen’”. South Carolinian Alston’s début Middle Grade fantasy trilogy was sold into nine territories in a frenetic couple of weeks before Bologna and, at this writing, there are offers on the table in a further four territories, with UK and US auctions scheduled to close during the fair.
Alston’s road to his book deals is a sweet story. Late last year, Cooper had been closed to submissions as she was only recently back from maternity leave, but she noticed Alston on #DVPit, the Twitter hashtag through which writers from backgrounds which are historically underrepresented in publishing pitch their ideas to agents. For most of his twenties Alston tried to make it as a writer, but it never happened. In his mid-thirties, he went back to university to train as a doctor, but gave #DVPit a go, trying for one last shot at his dream.
Cooper says: “I offered him representation on 23rd December; it was a nice Christmas gift for both of us. I was talking to him yesterday and he said, ‘I might have to defer medical school for a while.’ I’m not sure he will, but he might, as [the deals] may be life changing. But that’s what you live for as an agent: to give your authors good news.”
A brief history
Cooper had a circuitous route into agenting. She spent her very early years in Enfield, “until we got burgled and our cat got shot”; after that her parents decided that north London might not be the best place to raise Cooper and her twin brother. The family moved to rural Hertfordshire for what sounds like an idyllic, outdoorsy childhood. She attended the University of East Anglia then moved into recruitment. When Cooper’s husband was offered a job in New York, the two upped sticks and she worked as a Manhattan real-estate agent (“there’s probably not an apartment under 100th Street that I haven’t seen”). But she was unfulfilled. A friend came over one night and they had a “deep, meaningful talk about hopes and dreams”, with Cooper revealing she wanted to write a book.
She wrote a “terrible, Twilight-y” novel, but in the course of doing so attended a writers’ conference where the agent Joanna Volpe (shortly to sell Veronica Roth’s Divergent books across the world) gave a talk. Cooper says: “She was telling us what a literary agent was and I thought, ‘Hold on, I want to do that.’ From that moment on there was never going to be any other path in publishing for me.”
Cooper interned with Volpe, then moved back to London and interned with Caroline Sheldon and Penny Holyrode. It was Holyrode whose advice helped Cooper build her roster: “I’ve often said without Penny Holroyde there wouldn’t be a Gemma Cooper. She was the mentor I needed. At the time, everyone was obsessed with YA, but she had this list with funny young fiction, Middle Grade, amazing illustrators... she made me realise that there was a whole world of kids’ books that I never considered.”
There was a short stint at The Bright Agency, then she found her home at TBA after meeting Molly Ker Hawn, who had set up the TBA UK office a year or so previously. She says: “For the past six and a half years I’ve had such amazing colleagues, [TBA founder] Jenny [Bent] and Molly in particular. They are at the heart of why this is my dream job and I feel so grateful for their support, mentoring and the laughs.”
Bologna is one of the highlights of Cooper’s year: “I’m very social and I love to be around my friends, and foreign editors I have known for years now. I love the agents’ centre. To me all it’s like we’re all going on a school trip.
I know that makes the industry sound silly but I love seeing all these people. I imagine myself walking around Bologna when I’m 70—I can’t imagine doing anything else.”