Springboard: Watson, Little toasts 50 years in business with staunch performance in lockdown

I hop on Zoom to interview James Wills pictured below, fully expecting to see the Watson, Little managing director as fresh-faced, clean-cut and suited-and-booted as when I last saw him in real life, at the 2019 Frankfurt Book Fair. But like many of us, Wills has had a lockdown transformation; he is growing his hair long with a flowing beard, and I confess my first thought is Tom Hanks in “Castaway”. 

But the new look suits Wills and there may be an ulterior motive to the makeover: Wills recently signed the bearded comics legend Alan Moore, writer of Watchmen, V for Vendetta and From Hell, among other landmark works. Moore has never had an agent, and given his famous public disagreements with filmmakers on how they have adapted his stories, perhaps he should have. At any rate, Moore has written some prose works—a collection of short stories and Long London, a series of speculative novels—which at this writing Wills is auctioning in the UK. 

Wills says: “You might think I’m paying homage or cosplaying Alan with this [motioning to his hair and beard]. I’ve represented his daughter Leah Moore for many years and I’ve never done the hard sell with Alan, because I knew that he was going to do what he wanted to do—and he said he didn’t believe in agents. Which is a shame, because maybe some things would have been different, but I’m glad to represent him now. But with these stories and series of novels, he just knew that he had something special.” 

In a normal year Wills and Watson, Little would have been gearing up for an imminent London and Bologna Book Fair season, but the past 12 months have not been a normal year. Particularly gutting is the delayed 2021 LBF, as Watson, Little was planning a big knees-up to celebrate the agency’s 50th anniversary. The firm was set up in 1971 by Sheila Watson and David Bolt, first as Bolt & Watson, with Mandy Little joining in 1981. Bolt left a couple of years later, with the agency rechristened Watson, Little. Watson retired in 2005 and Little stepped back from full-time agenting a few years ago, but remains the company chair and still reps the Topsy and Tim creator Jean Adamson. Wills has been man and boy at the agency, joining 18 years ago fresh out of completing his BA and MA at the University of Leeds.

Wills says: “We will probably have a party to celebrate the anniversary down the road, but it has actually been a really good moment to reflect on those 50 years. Particularly since the point Mandy joined in 1981, and for a long period it was an all-female agency; Mandy came from film and TV and she has said it was a culture shock to come to publishing, with all its men in suits and four-hour lunches. But when I look at that history, I’m very proud to be part of it because as an agency we have always looked to the future. We’ve always been keen about promoting from within working with younger agents, and giving them the space and opportunity to grow their lists and to work on things that they are passionate about.”

Megan Carroll is the most recent example of that promotion from within, having stepped up from associate agent, joining Watson, Little’s complement of full agents: Wills, Laetitia Rutherford and Donald Winchester, plus rights director Rachel Richardson.

There is some overlap in the agents’ tastes, and Wills says “we try to do projects that complement each other. I think we’re very collegiate. I can’t really speak for other agencies, as I’ve only done work experience elsewhere, but we have always been very open and I’m not sure that many agencies share information and projects. Sometimes when you send editors a book, they say, ‘If it’s not for me, I’ll give it to my colleagues’. But, we really do mean that, and there is a sense we are stronger with this shared knowledge.” 

A purple patch
Whether or not it is this shared knowledge, or simply the Watson, Little client base being particularly productive of late, but Willis says that the agency has had a pretty good time of it, despite the various roadblocks the pandemic has thrown up. There has been a number of big-name deals, particularly with newcomers: Wills sold Freya Berry’s début The Dictator’s Wife to Headline at auction; and Rutherford orchestrated deals with both Macmillan Children’s and Walker for three Hiba Noor Khan kids’ titles. There are rising stars, too: Winchester secured a commission with Weidenfeld for BBC’s “Horrible Histories” consultant and podcaster Greg Jenner to write a book based on questions from the public; and Carroll struck a  new three-book deal for commercial women’s fiction author Sophie Claire with Hodder.

One of the difficulties over the past year, Wills admits, has been managing the shifting publishing schedules during the pandemic, and the author care that goes along with that. He says: “I feel desperately sorry for some of these authors, especially if they’re a début and they built up everything for this moment of publication, and then they were dealing with worries about whether it is going to be pushed back, or is it not? It’s been incredibly difficult for the authors. And I’m hoping that we, as an industry—and certainly the editors who make decisions about certain books and about an author’s next book—take into consideration the context of books that were published this past year, books that might have been published into a lockdown and perhaps without the usual [marketing and publicity] support.”

Wills will very much miss LBF and Bologna if the physical fairs don’t go ahead, particularly Bologna; he studied Italian at Leeds and did a couple of terms abroad in the “Fat City”, and “it was one of the most wonderful years of my life”. Yet he wonders how useful the June timings of the 2021 fairs will be: “It is knocking the rhythm of the publishing year completely off kilter. LBF is in a very difficult position, doing it in late June, early July—apart from the fact a lot of foreign [exhibitors] might be on holiday. Have you ever tried to, say, get an Italian publisher to even answer an email in July? But if travel is allowed maybe a month or two before the fair, I can see a lot of foreign publishers that might not want to go to an exhibition centre but still want to ‘do’ London. So they will do a quick trip in May/June and meet the agents that they want to meet, and that might be a far more efficient way to do ‘LBF’.”

That said, Wills is hoping for the fairs’ return. He says: “I hope the fairs will come back eventually, and of course a lot of the people have said this, but the best thing about the fairs is often the chance, serendipitous meetings, which is hard to replicate over Zoom. And there is that focal point in the calendar, the chance to get that swell of excitement about certain projects at the same time.”