Growing FBA is scaling the spires

Growing FBA is scaling the spires

Many things spring to mind when you think of Oxford: dreaming spires, Morse murders, The Norrington Room at Blackwell’s, Radiohead. Influential literary agency? Not so much. Yet for almost 30 years the university city has been the home of powerhouse Felicity Bryan Associates (FBA), whose stable ranges from non-fiction heavyweights Karen Armstrong and A C Grayling; to children’s superstars Meg Rosoff and David Almond; to literary prize-winners Liza Klaussmann and Iain Pears; to national treasure Mary Berry. And the firm’s star has shone even more brightly in 2017, with m.d. Catherine Clarke taking home the Nibbie for Literary Agent of the Year.

On a visit to FBA’s offices, set on a bijou shopping street north of the city centre, the “Oxford question” gets some wry smiles from the five-strong team. Founder and chair Felicity Bryan points out that Oxford is just an hour from Paddington, although she jokes that FBA contemplated holding the agency’s 25th anniversary bash a few years ago at the Saïd Business School, as it is adjacent the train station - easy for bewildered London publishers to locate.

FBA’s clients come from all corners of the globe, but being cheek by jowl to one of the world’s best universities has its advantages. Grayling and Diarmaid MacCullouch are just two professors the agency has helped guide to the bestseller lists. And a big part of Clarke’s Nibbie win was the stellar work she did on Oxford history don Peter Frankopan’s out-of-nowhere smash The Silk Roads (Bloomsbury).

Clarke tapped up another Oxford resident when, new-ish to agenting, she wanted to start repping kids’authors:“I knew Philip Pullman socially and mentioned that I was thinking about children’s. A little while later, I received a typescript from someone who had taken a course with [Pullman], who suggested she send it along.” That manuscript was from mulitple Carnegie nominee Julie Hearn, and Clarke subsequently built up an enviable children’s roster (her list is around a 50/50 split between adult and kids’), with Rosoff and Lauren St John just two of the standouts.

(From left) Catherine Clarke, Felicity Bryan and Caroline Wood of Felicity Bryan Associates.

It should be pointed out that Bryan was once a London agent, working at Curtis Brown before setting up on her own in Oxford - largely for family reasons - in 1988. Bryan had a massive success immediately with Rosamund Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers, and has never looked back. Clarke joined in 2001 from OUP, encouraged by her friend and colleague Kim Scott Walywn, in whose memory she would later found the women in publishing prize. “It was a leap,” she says. “An academic publisher has a suspicion of the literary agent - along with a curiosity and a secret admiration.”

Associate agent Sally Holloway and former film producer Caroline Wood were brought in a few years later. Wood largely reps novelists - such as Sadie Jones, Klaussmann and Martin Walker, author of the Dordogne-set Chief Bruno series, which has sold more than two million units in Germany - but also leads FBA’s film and TV side. The most recent hire is Carrie Plitt, who came from C+W/Curtis Brown last autumn. Clarke says: “Taking on [Plitt] is a recognition that we’re thriving, but also looking to the next generation.”

That forward thinking was truly kicked off in 2010 when Bryan instigated a management buyout. She now owns 40% of the company, with Clarke and Wood sharing the remaining 60%. The idea was to incentivise Clarke and Wood and to help secure FBA in the long term. Bryan says: “I had these brilliant women and I wanted to ensure that they stayed and had a part in it.”