YMU’s Harris on crossing the aisle to agenting and building non-fiction brands

YMU’s Harris on crossing the aisle to agenting and building non-fiction brands

It is not entirely rare for a publisher to cross the aisle to agenting, but Amanda Harris’ move 18 months ago from Orion to lead the YMU books team took some by surprise. After all, Harris pictured right had been in situ for 14 years, and at the end was running the Orion Spring and Seven Dials imprint—and thus was in charge of a sizable chunk of the division’s non-fiction.

“Yep, part of the furniture,” she nods. “But I was so lucky during my time there, to get to work with so much great talent—‘talent’! See how quickly I’ve become an agent? I worked with so many great authors over the years. I was lucky enough to bring the Hairy Bikers, Davina McCall and Fearne Cotton to Orion. And all were YMU clients. So I had worked with YMU as a customer, as it were. So, when they offered me the position, I couldn’t say no. It seemed so exciting.” 

What appealed, she says, was that YMU is not a “smash and grab, one-book sort of agency. It was about the opportunity to set up brands in the non-fiction space. And helping build those brand authors is a virtuous circle, because the frontlist will lift the backlist and you are inviting more people into the world of the author. I find that incredibly rewarding.”

YMU is the transatlantic talent agency formed 20 years ago; it combined a variety of subsidiaries, including the James Grant Group in the UK, until all divisions were rebranded under the YMU banner in 2018, following its acquisition by the private equity firm Trilantic. It reps clients across music, entertainment, the arts and sport, including DJ Steve Aoki, presenter-cum-author Graham Norton, Little Mix-turned-solo artist Jesy Nelson, Philip Schofield and, most excitingly for this reporter, former Fulham, Tottenham and US national team legend Clint “Deuce” Dempsey. While YMU signed some of its celeb clients to publishing deals over the years, the books arm did not properly begin until Eugenie Furniss and Rowan Lawton brought their Furniss Lawton agency under the James Grant banner, in 2012. With Furniss leaving to join talent company 42 two years ago and Lawton moving to The Soho Agency a little while later, Harris was brought in to the newly created role of director of publishing.

Broadly, Harris’ remit was to bring new talent into the agency, but also to work across YMU’s non-book clients to develop publishing projects. She made a pretty good fist of that in her first year or so, selling 37 titles across 16 separate deals in 2020, increasing the agency’s book advances by almost 1,000% year on year. Some of those were among the gaudiest celeb deals of the past couple of years, including memoirs for Ant & Dec and Claudia Winkleman. There was some nimble lockdown agenting, such as Harris working with Matt Lucas to turn his charity single “Thank You, Baked Potato” into a charity picture book with Egmont, which in turn led to a further four-book deal with the publisher. 

The books of Solomon
A good example of Harris’ client management is with Stacey Solomon, the “X-Factor” star turned tidying influencer/national treasure. Solomon had published a couple of titles in her “X-Factor” days, but they sold modestly. Harris worked with Solomon to angle a pitch to reflect her new profile, and it worked a treat, with Ebury winning a 15-publisher auction. Tap to Tidy was published just before lockdown (and Nielsen BookScan data) restrictions were eased this spring, débuting at number one. So no official volume sales, but Ebury said it shifted 104,000 copies in three days, which would have made it the one of the fastest-selling non-fiction titles since records began. 

Harris says: “Books from authors in this non-fiction space are really successful when they connect with the audience on an emotional level that goes beyond entertainment. [Solomon] understands her audience and respects them—and her audience knows that. During the YouTuber boom there were a lot of books put out that were, shall we say, thin. A lot didn’t work, even with that massive audience, because there really wasn’t that respect for readers.”

Part of this brand building means Harris is moving her clients out of the narrow celeb memoir lane, which seems to make some people—particularly on social media—rather cross. Harris says: “There’s been a snobbery about this kind of non-fiction throughout the industry. Which I think is unfair, because it is a huge revenue driver for publishers. And there is a disconnect when other authors believe that celebrities are sucking the money out and denying them advances.That isn’t how [the acquisition process] works. Also, I’m proud of my authors, who do a lot for Waterstones, for indie bookshops, and really help drive footfall there.”

The route to books
Harris grew up in Bewdley, Worcestershire, and she and her older sister were the first people in her family to go to university. She had vague plans to be a journalist or solicitor, but getting an internship at Routledge put her on the publishing track. Her first job was at Pan Macmillan in publicity and she eventually became the publicity director at Simon & Schuster. Harris credits S&S’ Ian Chapman and Suzanne Baboneau in letting her “jump over the fence” to editorial; after a couple of years there, she joined Orion. 

The pandemic was particularly challenging for Harris, not just in juggling the number of deals: she has three children and one, her daughter Rosie, has Down’s Syndrome and autism. Harris says: “Rosie’s special school shut down, of course, and that was difficult. But I had really patient clients and editors when, say, Rosie would Zoom-bomb because she didn’t really understand about crashing a meeting.”

Harris is passionate about discussing disability and is keen to get the trade talking about it more, having set up the disability network, Access, at Hachette and a similar committee at YMU. “It’s difficult to really get these discussions going because the voice from the disabled community doesn’t speak as one—I think it’s probably because we’re all busy just trying to get through the day. We don’t need sympathy, but understanding and empathy. When I tell people about my daughter, I don’t need that consoling head tilt, I just want people to think, ‘Oh, OK, that’s why she’s running around.’” 

She is moving into the autumn with an expanded role, as the literary team, having previously sat within the YMU Entertainment, will become a division of its own, YMU Books. It will also add to its head-count. The idea is essentially to make books a more prominent part of the entire YMU group’s portfolio, and allow Harris and her team “to discover, support and amplify élite talent”. 

Harris admits to still having some poacher-turned-gatekeeper feelings. Not least because some of the authors she helped steer onto the bestseller lists at Orion, like the Hairy Bikers and Fearne Cotton, are now her clients. She says: “I’ve discovered that the worst thing about this job is the phone calls to the publishers you really love who didn’t win the auction. But it is so exciting on this side, when you sit in on those meetings with your client and other people at YMU, and bounce ideas around and think up detailed strategies that can cross branding, live [events], broadcast and, of course, literary. There are times I catch myself, still like the new girl, thinking, ‘Wow, this is so cool.’”