Obituary: David Miller

Obituary: David Miller

David Miller liked to distinguish between those for whom work in the book trade is a job and those for whom it is a vocation. This was not merely an observation of difference, but to him a genuine distinction; throughout his career he was drawn to colleagues and collaborators who fell into the latter category, from long-time boss and mentor Deborah Rogers at Rogers, Coleridge & White (RCW); to his mentors-at-a-distance, Bob Gottlieb and Carol Janeway of Knopf; to his friends and colleagues in the business—from Peter Straus at Picador and RCW, to Sloan Harris at ICM and Kerr MacRae of Hachette and Simon & Schuster. He never forgot that his job was to manage and facilitate his authors’ careers, financially as well as otherwise, but he never judged a book by the size of its advance, nor an author by the number of bidders in an auction.

Though he could hardly have come from a more conventional background—public school (King’s School, Canterbury), Oxbridge (Girton College, Cambridge) and, briefly, a job as a headhunter in the City—Miller’s curiosity and open-mindedness made his taste and interests as broad as, and perhaps broader than, anyone in the book trade. Not for him, with all due respect to those who felt differently, were foreign rights a business to be left to his excellent rights colleagues at RCW (Ann Warnford-Davis, Margaret Halton, Stephen Edwards and Laurence Laluyaux); Miller was more of a fixture at Frankfurt than any agent of his generation, while the dinners he hosted at the fair for over two decades began with the stipulation that he should be the only agent, and that he and his co-host be the only Brits.

The work of Miller’s clients ranged widely, from novelists Victoria Hislop and the Booker-shortlisted Magnus Mills and Nicola Barker to psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz; from historian and biographer Kate Summerscale to art historian Laura Cumming. They also included Indian journalists Raghu Karnad and Siddhartha Deb, the Dutch Oxford professor Bart van Es and, latterly, a number of authors that he sub-agented for the Norwegian publisher Cappelen Damm and the Danish Gyldendal.

It is hardly surprising that Miller’s favourite writer was the Anglo-Polish Konrad Korseniowski (known, of course, more familiarly as Joseph Conrad) and that his favourite novels were set across the globe, in Africa, South America, Europe, East Asia. Conrad provided the inspiration for David’s
first—and, sadly, only—novel, Today [published by Mirchandani at Atlantic], which revolves around Conrad’s family and associates, immediately before, during and after the Heart of Darkness writer’s death in Kent. Part of the novel is set in Canterbury, where Miller went to school, while the emotional inspiration was clearly the then recent death of his beloved father “Jock”.

Embracing digital

As a young man, as Deborah Rogers’ assistant, the phrase “young fogey” could have been invented to describe Miller’s manner, if not his dress sense (rumpled) or politics (liberal/left); at the age of 25 he seemed already to be in his mid-50s. It is the least of the sadnesses of his colleagues, clients, authors and friends that he did not live to see them. Yet his enthusiasm for modern technology, not least for Twitter, justified the nickname “digital Dave”, though this was a moniker that only David seems to have made use of. His actual Twitter handle, @drearyagent, was a typical piece of faux selfdeprecation. Miller could hardly have been or found life less dreary, when it was so full of new things—books, writers, unfamiliar music, people—to enjoy and share.

His habit of reading out loud from writing that appealed to him— enchanting to some, frustrating to others—was matched by his delight in adopting young people in the business, from Max Porter, when a bookseller at Daunt’s, to Cathryn Summerhayes, when a junior rights associate at David Godwin Associates. Miller could hardly have been prouder of, nor loved more, his two teenage sons, Freddie and Billy; his paternal streak also extended to many people in the business. It is no coincidence that he described himself on Twitter, as “Father, literary agent, author, editor”.

It is hard to imagine, as he observed of his mentor Deborah Rogers, Miller in retirement. He died so young that it would have been far off in any case. He leaves behind an unfinished novel (about the first production, in London, of Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken), a book about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and so many books by his clients that he will not see published. In one of his last texts, he described himself as “useless agent, perhaps a decent friend”. He was wrong on both counts. He was a splendid, unique agent and a marvellous friend to so many: clients, publishers, fellow agents.

Ravi Mirchandani is associate publisher at Picador.