Despite concerns about the "Spotification of literature" and the unknowns of Brexit, Marjacq’s director Guy Herbert is in an upbeat mood as he welcomes me to the central London office of the boutique literary agency, which turns 45 this year.
What follows is a more chaotic interview than the average company profile for The Bookseller, as his six-agent team piles into the small meeting space along with their leader. We are forced to conduct the interview in two stages as there are not enough chairs to fit all the staff in, but the conversation that follows is peppered with the words "collegiate" and "collaborative", and it is clear that these phrases are not merely paying lip service.
Diana Beaumont and Catherine Pellegrino
When discussing the changes which have taken place under Herbert’s leadership—including an office move from Baker Street to the "more connected" Kingsway, moments from Holborn station—several employees discuss, somewhat mysteriously, "an energy". Perhaps this is partly due to Herbert’s maverick management style: at one point he casually describes how he "abolished holidays", prompting laughter around the table. It’s later clarified over email: the agents can take all the holiday they "want or need" as long as they get their jobs done.
Since Herbert took over the running of the agency six years ago, it has expanded from "two and a half" agents (one was also an administrative assistant) to six. The 135-(ish)-author agency works across various genres, from commercial and genre, to literary and children’s, with recent deals including Alex North’s The Whisper Man going to Michael Joseph following a five-way auction, a two-book deal for Hot Mess author Lucy Vine with Orion, Hodder winning a pair of novels from crime author Angela Clarke at auction, and Jo Jakeman’s début thriller going to Harvill Secker.
It is all a far cry from 1994, when Herbert first became involved with the company, founded by Jacqui Lyons, formerly an agent at PFD, and spy novelist, screenwriter and TV executive George Markstein. "It was originally set up as a script agency," Herbert says. "I was a consultant for Jacqui for almost 25 years. It was really my contract skills and ability to count that Jacqui was after at that stage. When I joined, there was very little of the literary agency aspect going on, it was very much the computer games side." He believes the agency has "gained an independent personality" since he took over. "Jacqui’s still a shareholder and takes an active interest, but it’s not like it’s her agency, as it was. It is this general scrum rather than individual will."
Philip Patterson and Imogen Pelham
Herbert describes how in recent years it has achieved a "more balanced portfolio", as for many years "crime powerhouse" Phil Patterson was the only main agent. Now Sandra Sawicka handles foreign rights as well as her own list, while Catherine Pellegrino focuses on children’s and YA, Imogen Pelham covers literary fiction and non-fiction, while Diana Beaumont focuses on more commercial titles. Leah Middleton joined in April, bringing TV and film back in-house following Luke Speed’s departure.
Pellegrino praises its "collegiate atmosphere" as well as its "good mix of collaboration with healthy competition"; this sentiment is echoed widely by other colleagues,
with Beaumont citing the "very flat structure" as one of Marjacq’s main strengths. "We all make decisions generally, as a group," she says. "If someone joins, we’re all there at the interview." This collaborative effort also included all the employees visiting many of the potential office spaces ahead of the move central in 2016. "Even in this age of instant communication, you still have to go and see people," Herbert says.
Potential threats on the horizon include the scramble from publishers for audio rights, Beaumont says, and Herbert agrees that subscription models and licensing around audio "are a threat to the author—the ‘Spotification’ of literature is something we need to keep an eye on". Meanwhile, the shadow of Brexit "means it’s more important than ever to have those good links abroad", according to Patterson. Sawicka is cautiously optimistic about the impact of Brexit on foreign rights: "I don’t believe that the borders will be closed for intellectual properties, so they will be sold as they are sold now, and the advances will potentially be higher [owing to the exchange rate]."
Leah Middleton and Sandra Sawicka
Sawicka has recently focused on Brazil, "previously a completely untapped market for us", and wants to attend an Asian fair such as Shanghai, rather than relying on sub-agents. She is also aiming to establish more of a client base in New York—Marjacq is going global, it seems.
"When I was a scout, a long time ago, we had a map of all the big agencies and Marjacq was one of the little ones right at the bottom," Pellegrino says. "And when I started here in 2015—especially in children’s, because there wasn’t a children’s agent—it didn’t have a big profile. Within the industry we’re known now and seem to be a force to be reckoned with, which is great."