Oxford Today visits one of Britain’s most powerful literary agents, Felicity Bryan Associates, to talk about the state of publishing, Oxford authors and what makes a great agent
Anyone who remembers Oxford remembers North Parade, the secretive little street that you turn into from the Banbury Road, the visual cue for the turn being the restaurant Gee’s. Gee’s was the mystery eatery set in a sort of bijou greenhouse, that we could all see straight into but which no student could afford. Remarkably it’s still going, and still out of reach for most students, boasting ribeye steak for £25.95 and a disclaimer to the effect that the crab might contain ‘some small amount of shell.’
As for North Parade, whereas the star act appeared to be the Rose and Crown pub, the outright winner is undoubtedly the literary agent founded in 1988 by former journalist Felicity Bryan. Recently dubbed ‘a literary powerhouse,’ the eponymously-named Felicity Bryan Associates today comprises four agents and one associate agent, who work in an airy, glassy atrium set back from the road down a narrow passage way behind a slatted blue gate.
Initially I couldn’t find it, but once found, Narnia-like, it’s a delicious world unto itself of book-lined walls. Sitting at a large, polished wood table across from me is Felicity Bryan, the founder, and colleague Catherine Clarke. Felicity chairs the company and Catherine is the Managing Director, with Caroline Wood as a third Director, this set-up working well since Bryan decided to share ownership of the company in 2010 via a management buy-out. The fourth agent, Carrie Plitt, joined in 2016 while Associate Agent Sally Holloway retains a freelance status. The fact that all the agents are women is a luminous and heartening fact not distinct from the success of the agency, as I was about to establish.
Asked what Felicity attributes her success to, there are many answers besides the obvious one of hard work and dedication. Clarke says, ‘Felicity has an unusual ability to see potential in others that they may not see in themselves.’ This is matched by a brilliant deal-making ability that matches authors to publishers. Bryan says, ‘we only do serious books for serious money,’ quickly followed by the fact that she has represented celebrity chef and Bake-Off national treasure Mary Berry since 1976, (Bryan brought her across from her previous agency Curtis Brown). That’s four decades of book loyalty in a world where footballers leave after one season and musicians have gone from vinyl to live streaming. As was quoted at the recent British Book Awards, when Catherine Clarke was presented with Literary Agent of the Year, the agency is "resolutely focused on not just [the authors'] next bestseller but their whole careers".
One of Bryan’s big, early hits was Rosamund Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers. Pilcher remains with Bryan many years later. Another reason for Bryan’s success is that she is passionate about big ideas and subjects -as befits Oxford, one could say- but came into books as a seasoned journalist having begun with a degree in art history from the Courtauld Institute in London. She worked at the Financial Times in the late Seventies, then the Economist, and was a columnist on the London Evening Standard. The experience means that she can rapidly distinguish between a brilliant writer and a merely serious one, a rather important distinction when it comes to the tricky business of joining serious books to serious money, and in a University setting where seriousness is not always matched by style.
This prompts the obvious digression by me on behalf of Oxford Today readers who are authors or aspiring authors (all of them in my experience, -Ed.). Why has the physical book survived and what state is it in? Does it have a future?
‘Why yes’, beams Bryan. ‘Four years ago we were very worried, because e-book sales were at the expense of paper books and were growing rapidly. But over the past two years this situation has reversed so we’re not worried any more.’
We noodle around some of the sub-narratives for this subject; that fact that e-Books are quite expensive and in the UK attract a tax that physical books don’t; the fact that children’s books are much more immersive for children than screens that disastrously redirect fragile imaginations back to social media distractions like Snapchat. Perhaps most pertinent, says Catherine who specializes in children's fiction as well as adult non-fiction, is that young adults have driven the resurgence of the printed book, defying the relentless and generally misinformed assumption that all young people want technology at the expense of traditional media channels. What they themselves have been reporting, instead, is precisely that printed books are a way of getting away from the screens. The printed word is physical and imaginative respite from digital media. According to industry research group Nielsen, ebook sales declined by 4% in 2016 while shop sales of physical books rose 7%. Other estimates put the ebook decline at nearer 16% both in the UK and the US, a trend that began in 2014. In the mix is rapid growth in audiobooks and a return to ‘beautiful books’ as confidence has returned to the sector.
Of course, publishers now routinely publish books in multiple formats, and in some cases people have been known to read a book electronically, only to buy it again in hard copy. Yet the return of the paper book has clearly been greeted with relief by publishers and literary agents including Bryan. She and her four colleagues represent around 250 authors, all of whose livelihoods depend to some degree on readers buying their books. Considering the amount of dealmaking to be done, from film rights to international editions in dozens of languages, and not forgetting the basic creative haul of conceiving the right book in the first place (‘We want to be utterly sure that it’ll work before we sign it,’), and suddenly the term powerhouse seems entirely apt.
Asked whether women make better agents than men (Felicity Bryan Associates is 100% staffed by women), we embark initially on a more general conversation about the publishing trade. Clarke volunteers that as a sector, it is probably 60% female, but that this gender split partly reflects a bias towards junior roles, the industry leaders at the big publishing houses typically still being male. As for the role of agent, Clarke emphasises that is is a very collaborative business, where collaboration gets you much further than confrontation. Of the team in Oxford, Clarke notes that ‘we’re unequivocally loyal to each other but with enough friendly competition to make life interesting…’. What Bryan prizes above all is agent empathy with authors.
Our rambly conversation is all down to me snaking hither and thither, but luckily I don’t forget to ask about the importance of Oxford or Oxford authors, noting that Bryan herself represents current Oxford academics such as church historian Diarmaid McCulloch, and former alumni such as Karen Armstrong (St Anne's). ‘We always viewed Oxford as an obvious non-London location in which to be successful,’ says Bryan. Numerous other Oxford names scatter across Bryan’s author list, including Royal Society Professor of Physiology at Oxford, Frances Ashcroft, and Oxford Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture John Barton; John Batchelor; Archie Brown; Ursula Buchan; Artemis Cooper; the former Oxford Today editor Georgina Ferry; James Hamilton; Nicholas Harberd; Peter Heather; Belinda Jack and Toby Matthiesen. That list is by no means comprehensive, and a surprising number of Bryan’s authors live in or near Oxford without having any formal link to the University. To an unusual degree the city has become a magnet for intellects.
Among the many Felicity Bryan Associates books published later this year are Guernica by James Attlee and Gainsborough: A Portrait by James Hamilton, both Oxford residents, The New Adventures of Mr Toad: Toad Hall in Lockdown by Oxford Zoologist Tom Moorhouse, The Last Days of Archie Maxwell by Oxford graduate Annabel Pitcher, Chaucer’s People by Liza Picard and The Future of War by Sir Lawrence Freedman, both ex-Oxford residents, and Democracy and its Crisis by A.C. Grayling. Next year sees a number of high profile debuts, including psychological thriller House Swap by Rebecca Fleet and The Intelligence Trap by BBC journalist David Robson, as well as the release of the film of Rhidian Brook’s The Aftermath.
Felicity Bryan – Agent and Chair
Felicity Bryan was a journalist with The Financial Times and The Economist before becoming an agent at Curtis Brown. She founded the Felicity Bryan Agency in 1988. She represents many prize-winning authors of non-fiction, including journalists, historians and science writers, and a select number of fiction writers.
Catherine Clarke – Agent and Managing Director
Catherine Clarke was Publishing Director of the Trade Books Department at OUP for several years before she joined Felicity Bryan as an agent in 2001. She represents a broad range of writers of serious non-fiction, including biography, philosophy and history. She also represents a number of bestselling and prizewinning writers for children and young adults. She became Managing Director of Felicity Bryan Associates in 2010.
Pictures by Jpbowen (North Parade) and portraits by University of Oxford/Richard Lofthouse