Janklow & Nesbit reaps the rewards of investing in 'smart non-fiction'

Janklow & Nesbit reaps the rewards of investing in 'smart non-fiction'

Janklow & Nesbit had to feel pretty confident going into last month’s Royal Society Science Prize ceremony, with the agency having three of the six shortlistees in what has become one of the industry’s biggest literary non-fiction awards. Up for the gong from the Janklow stable were Hannah Fry’s Hello World, Lucy Cooke’s The Unexpected Truth About Animals and Sarah-Jayne Blackmore’s Inventing Ourselves (all three published by Doubleday). University College London neuroscientist Blackmore—whose book looks at the how adolescents’ brains develop—went on to claim the £25,000 award.

The treble shortlisting was doubly sweet for Janklow’s m.d. Will Francis. First, he represents both Blackmore and Cooke (Fry is agented by Claire Conrad). Second, around half of his clients are in the "smart non-fiction" space that has become such a hot commodity.

Francis’ non-fiction authors come from a multitude of disciplines, but his list is particularly strong in science and history, subjects that are having a moment in the publishing world because, he thinks, "it’s all related to explaining ourselves, to the idea of people wanting to orientate themselves in the universe during a period of turmoil. Politics and political journalism have become so tribal—and even though I don’t think scientists necessarily escape that tribalism themselves, at least science is something theoretically rigorous, where there’s an objective standard of truth. And what is really interesting is that hinterland where science and history meet."

Francis has a number of authors in this space with books that seem to be hitting the zeitgeist, many of which have been recently published or are slated for the next year, including Adam Rutherford (The Book of Humans, W&N) and Matt "the Stand-up Mathematician" Parker (Humble Pi, Penguin Press). Which is interesting, Francis says, because "you can’t really chase the trends. You are often submitting on a proposal and it can be many years before a book is published. You can get a psychological thriller out relatively quickly, but it doesn’t work that way with a big, fat science book. Sure, you get a sense of the tides turning in a particular way... But I think you ultimately just have to concentrate on finding the right authors. In this area, that means someone who has a combination of things: they are experts who are exploring interesting fields of study, but can also write for the general reader and have a track record of engaging broader audiences."

Perhaps part of the reason why Francis is successful in recruiting authors from academia is that he contemplated becoming one himself. (Indeed, when we meet he does have the look of a slightly rumpled junior humanities professor, complete with an elbow-patched jacket and skinny black jeans tucked into work boots.) Yet after doing his undergraduate degree at King’s College, London Francis decided he needed some real-life experience, putting off doing a PhD in English Literature to work as an assistant for Caroline Dawnay, then running the books department at PFD.

A few months into agenting, he was hooked: "One of the interesting things about working for [Dawnay], and what drew me into the industry, was seeing someone who was just as engaged with the world of literature as the academics I worked with, but was also a merchant at the interface between the intellectual and the commercial. I found agenting really fascinating. There is that whole challenge about turning something as abstract as an idea into a book. Less intellectually, it is just really fun doing big deals."

Claire Conrad and Rebecca Carter

The special relationship
Francis became a fully fledged agent when he joined Greene & Heaton in 2003, before moving over to Janklow five years later. He was named the head of the firm’s UK office in 2013.

Janklow UK is a subsidiary of the massive US powerhouse, whose star-heavy list includes commercial giants (Danielle Steel, Anne Rice), literary greats (Jeffrey Eugenides, Joan Didion) and celebrities (of note recently, Stormy Daniels). Yet the UK side, established in 2000, has more of a boutique feel. The office is in a small terraced house in Notting Hill—small doesn’t necessarily mean cheap; Zoopla estimates the average house price on the street is £4.6m—and there are three other full-time agents in addition to Francis: Conrad, who has been at the agency since 2002; Rebecca Carter, who moved across the aisle to Janklow in 2012 after 15 years at Chatto and Harvill Secker; and Hellie Ogden, who joined from Greene & Heaton in 2013. Zoë Nelson has recently come on board as rights director after eight years at RCW, succeeding the long-serving Rebecca Folland, who left to head the Hodder Headline rights department. Francis says: "One of the enjoyable things about this office is that it’s just about small enough that we all know everything our colleagues are submitting, and we can talk about strategy as offers come in. We’re quite competitive but not really with each other, as we all have slightly different areas of specialisation. But because we work so closely together, if one of us does a big deal, it seems like all of us do."

The past 12 months have been pretty fruitful for the agency as a whole. Among the eye-catching deals were Odgen having one of the smashes of this year’s London Book Fair, with Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first adult novel going to Sophie Jonathan at Picador; Carter sold Olivia Laing’s début, Crudo, to the same imprint and it subsequently became one of the literary hits of summer; while Conrad had one of the biggest pre-Frankfurt deals, selling two crime books by début author Kate Weinberg to Bloomsbury in the UK and Putnam in the US.

There are no real plans to grow the agency to match the US parent, Francis says. "We’re not really looking to hire more agents. We have 30–40 clients each and the ethos is not to take on very many clients, but to be very sure you can sell who you do take on. But we are backed up by a company in New York that has been in existence since the 1970s, has a tough legal department with great boilerplate contracts. I think that can be seductive when we are trying to sign new clients—it feels as if we have the muscle and deep experience of a much larger agency, but in a smaller office, where the whole company can get behind an author."

Hellie Ogden and Zoe Nelson