A scary kind of assessment

May 17, 2008

Does anyone know if she’s any good? Why does she have that funny commission structure? How long does she take to reply? What’s her track record in the USA? Does she HAVE any track record in the USA????
Yes, the literary blogosphere is a scary place to find yourself – especially when you’re the one under the microscope, pinned and wriggling on the wall. It was a shock when I first checked out a helpful would-be author’s link – and found myself being discussed at considerable length, and in a fair amount of detail, by people I’ve never had any contact with in my life. This kind of thing is new to me and seems to proliferate much more in the US than in the UK (though I could be being a bit naive about that). Is it good, is it bad? Well, I guess it’s fine, so long as it helps you lot out there, and so long as it doesn’t encourage people to have seriously unreal expectations of how an agent should (or feasibly can) carry out their business. But it does make me want to pop up, wave my hand and say, ‘Hi there, you have a burning question? Then ask me! I don’t bite!’

So let’s see if I can answer some of those questions you’ve been storing up. Why is my commission structure different to other agents based in the USA? Because I represent both American and British authors (currently about half and half) and both countries are my home, so I do the logical thing and take the same commission (15%) on sales to both territories (instead of calling the UK ‘foreign’ and taking 20%). But Greenhouse can’t afford just to give away that 5%, so instead we put it on to foreign sales (ie, the rest of the world) and take 25% there instead of 20%. It all works out the same in the end – and if you are lucky enough to have a big deal in both the US and UK (likely to be your biggest markets), then you would do pretty well out of this method of cutting the cake.

Now, the issue of my track record. I’ve been a publisher my whole working life. My career took me from Collins (when it was William Collins Sons & Co Ltd – ie, long before it was HarperCollins) to Transworld (now part of Random House) and then to Macmillan UK, where I started in 1994 as Fiction Editor, moving fairly rapidly to Senior Editor, then Editorial Director, then Publishing Director of Fiction – and finally in about 2005 to Publishing Director of the whole of Macmillan Children’s Books, which published 200 titles per year, from preschool novelty books right through to sophisticated teenage fiction under the YPicador imprint, which I was instrumental in launching. I was on the Board of the business and led a large team of editors, so divided my time between senior management and hands-on editing, which I never completely let go. Here are some of the authors I worked with and published: Judy Blume, Meg Cabot (I acquired her for the UK and Commonwealth and developed the Princess Diaries series when Harper US had only bought one book; you’ll find my name in some dedications!), Sharon Creech, Karen Cushman, Carolyn Coman, Caroline B Cooney, Cynthia Voigt, Gary Paulsen, Coleen Murtagh Paratore, Carl Hiaasen and David Baldacci (children’s novels); Philip Pullman, Eva Ibbotson, Robert Westall, Lian Hearn, Celia Rees, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Geri Halliwell (yes, I worked with a Spice Girl!), Frances Hardinge – oh, and so many more. Earlier years also took in Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Wilson (one of Britain’s bestselling children’s authors).

So what are my credentials within the USA? Well, I was very much an international publisher – as many senior publishers are these days in our big, globalized publishing industry. Apart from the bookfairs and other international trade events, I made many trips to New York in my London days, and helped to forge close relationships with American sister companies and other US lists. Many of my best publishing buddies are in the States, which has given me a wonderful platform on which to build now I live over here. When you come from a very strong publishing background you become known – and it’s been really exciting to see how enormously keen publishers have been to find out what the Greenhouse has to offer (and also, I have to say, whom I have chosen to represent). The great thing about being a former publisher is that you know the business intimately, how it works, its culture, and I am finding that depth of experience incredibly helpful as I work with authors in this new way.

So that’s a brief snapshot of many years of my history. But here’s what I really think of as my ‘track record’: I know the dream, and I understand the dream. The dream of one day finding your name in print; of sharing your creativity with the world; of seeing your talent recognized and appreciated. I understand the thrill, the heartbreak, the frustration, the hope, the desperately hard (and always solitary) work that goes into achieving that dream. And, quite frankly, the sacrifice (and not always just for you, the author, but also your loved ones). Representing authors is for me a vocation, not just a business. It’s my passion and my joy. But I can’t do it for the many; I can only do it for the very, very few. And if I take a few weeks to get back to you, and my note is short, I hope you will be forgiving. I’m doing my best, but you are not the only one who is writing to me. I try to give what I can to everyone, but inevitably it won’t be that much for the many.

Cheers, folks, and now it’s time to knock off and cook the dinner!