Being J K Rowling's agent, Neil Blair is at once at the centre of publishing, but also slightly set apart, handling arguably the world's biggest brand. Does he see himself as an industry insider or outsider? He considers, weighing his previous experience as a lawyer handling the Potter brand at Warner Bros, as well as his appreciation and understanding of the "core industry" of publishing: "I suppose I feel, because of the growth of the digital aspect to [the publishing] business, that I was an outsider, and the business has moved closer to me."
His every move over the past year has given a jolt to the trade. Last June brought the announcement of Pottermore, touted as a game-changing digital approach. This was hot on the heels of his break from the Christopher Little Agency after almost 11 years, with Rowling moving with him to the new start-up The Blair Partnership. Then in February the news broke of Little, Brown signing Rowling's first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy.
Blair is quick to stress that, while it may have been "perceived as a game-changer", Pottermore was simply intended to be what was "right for Jo and Harry Potter at the time". The interactive site's e-book store, exclusive home to the Harry Potter digital books, took £3m in its first month, beating "all expectations and projections".
Pottermore's c.e.o. Charlie Redmayne, previously of HarperCollins, is described by Blair as "the most knowledgeable [digital] person in the industry". Redmayne works on a separate floor to the 13-strong Blair Partnership team, headed by Blair alongside four fellow partners: Zoe King, who handles client representation, Anouska Spiers, head of legal and business affairs, Lucy Hairsine, head of brand management, and strategic adviser Rick Senat. It currently represents 10 authors, including Pearl Lowe, with Blair saying their approach is to react uniquely to each author: "I think everyone in our industry has to think wider than just print or even e-book pub. You have to consider all kinds of media."
Blair acknowledges times are "getting tougher" for agents, but says: "I think there is an opportunity for small to medium-sized agencies that are comfortable with modern technology across all the different media; small enough to be nimble but big enough, with staff who are experienced enough, to provide a proper service for their clients."
Though he dismisses the term "battleground", Blair describes an "area opening up that both publishers and traditional agents are looking at which is this brand management area". He says: "Publishers are very relevant in this modern age, I'm not trying to say they're not, but I think their function is more in the traditional areas of editing and distribution."
Doing the right thing
Despite the stir caused by Pottermore, Blair's deals with conventional publishers for The Casual Vacancy prove he believes in their relevance. "What we want to try and do is the right thing for the right time for the right circumstance. By the time the e-book market was worth considering [for Harry Potter], the book was a phenomenon and it was screaming out for us to do something different rather than phoning each of the publishers up and saying: 'Christmas has come early, you can have the e-book rights.'"
The Partnership moved into digital agency TH_NK's offices (the company that developed the Pottermore site) immediately after Blair's split with Little, and they are in the process of finding more permanent digs. "I still feel like we're in the establishment phase," he says. He declines to elaborate any more on the break with Little, though explains that they first worked together with the Potter brand when he was at Warner Bros, in the early days when the potential size of the property "hadn't filtered through yet" to Blair's bosses in LA.
He describes deciding to leave his high-powered post at Warner Brothers as "quite an easy decision", despite some anxiety over working so closely with Little: "It would just be the two of us running it and he is, and always has been, a man with a certain reputation."
Of the wider trade, Blair says: "Morphing is the key. I don't think traditional books or publishers are going to disappear; I think that the industry and the way that people consume books will be different in 10 years' time." It could be argued Blair's actions are pointing the way..
£3m Worth of e-books sold in its first month
64% Percentage of children's US library e-book and audio downloads generated by Rowling in April
22m Visits in the site's first two weeks
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- Business profile: Neil Blair
- Business profile: David Shelley, publisher, Little, Brown
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