One of the first deals that the new-look United Agents foreign rights team tackled collectively, and one of the hottest, was last year’s Brief Answers to the Big Questions, the final book by Stephen Hawking. It was a complicated business: the book was sold to English-language publishers shortly after Hawking’s death in March 2018, and was to be published just months later, with the estate hoping for as many simultaneous publications as possible. Plus, the estate and UA were keen to put fresh energy into the new book, offering it widely (in the UK, principal agent Robert Kirby moved the title to John Murray from Hawking’s previous home, Transworld).
So auctions in multiple territories, most involving new players and a really short window. How do you keep your head? UA rights agent Amy Mitchell says: “It is always best to be clear on the rules. A lot of publishers think it might be just about throwing money at a book. Of course we were looking for good advances for Hawking, but from the outset we were clear that it was also about the right fit—we wanted to see marketing plans and the full publishing picture.”
Subtle things are also an aid when offers come cascading in. Mitchell and rights colleagues Georgina Le Grice and Jane Willis share an office. Le Grice says: “It seems like a minor thing, but it helps being in the same room—when an email comes in with an exciting offer, we can bounce ideas off each other. And we’re not possessive or precious about individual territories; we do it all together.”
A brief history
The collective spirit certainly did the business for Hawking, as the book was sold into more than 40 territories. A collectivism is at the heart of the reconstituted UA rights setup, too. Its rights team had been jointly led up by Margaret Halton and Natasha Fairweather, but last year, when Fairweather left for Rogers, Coleridge & White and Halton headed to PEW, it was decided to form a non-hierarchical department.
Not that the trio were new to the business. Willis is one of UA’s founders, having joined Peters, Fraser & Dunlop from Puffin just a couple of months before a bunch of PFD staffers left to set up UA. She says: “It all went pear-shaped pretty much as soon as I arrived. I had always been at publishers, and I thought: ‘My god, is this what agencies are like?’ But it was exciting to be in the thick of it.” One of Mitchell’s previous roles was at A P Watt—bought by UA in 2012—and she was lured back to UA a couple years ago, partly due to her familiarity with the A P Watt list. Le Grice came over in 2016, after leading rights at Ed Victor.
Willis sells rights for the kids’ side (but not coeditions) and a select few adult languages, the biggest of which is Spanish. Le Grice and Mitchell divvy up the rest: Le Grice’s biggest languages include German, Italian and Chinese; Mitchell’s are French, Dutch and Portuguese. All three have worked for publishers’ in-house rights teams. When asked why they prefer agencies, they answer, almost in unison, “the authors”. Le Grice says: “You’re there from the very beginning... [UA agent] Anna Webber recently brought on two new authors, and we met them almost when she did.” Mitchell adds: “Agency rights departments have much more involvement. At a publisher, you have the publicity and marketing department above you, and they are often in the acquisition meetings, and you are not.”
But there is a battle going on, with conglomerate publishers increasingly pushing for world rights. Le Grice says that the big publishers are “really aggressive, really pushing” for world rights. Willis agrees, and says it is up to agencies to underscore what they can add for clients: “From a practical standpoint, I think there are more pots of money out there and we can get at them better than publishers can. I don’t want to slag off publishers’ rights departments, as some are really good, but we’re thinking more about the long term for the client and with a different perspective. We sell into a territory with the author’s interest in mind, the publisher sells it with their own interest.”
Markets have ups and downs, but Le Grice says the “main European territories are stable, and Italy is buying a bit more lately. China is strong, it just seems to buy a lot— even a lot of random backlist.” Unsurprisingly given its political turmoil, Willis says: “Turkey is a nightmare, really hard at the moment. Spain has been in the doldrums for a few years, but they are buying a lot of deep backlist; small advances, sure, but it is interesting that they are trying to reinvigorate older classics.”
Brexit is a concern, but not immediately. Willis explains: “For UA as a whole the issue is coeditions, which [children’s agent] Jodie Hodges handles. She has a massive list of picture book authors and illustrators. The difficulty, if [an exit deal] doesn’t get sorted, will be getting physical copies across borders. Of course, if the economy is threatened it might hit us. But what might have a knock- on effect across Europe is a continuation of something we’ve been seeing for years: English becoming less important. European countries have been buying more rights from each other, English has become less important, and if we further isolate ourselves, this might become a greater worry.”