The Book Club

Literary agents are key figures behind almost every bestseller. Andre Paine visits an EC1 agency with a 60-year history in books and gets some tips on how to secure a publishing deal.

Unless you pay attention to the acknowledgements at the back of a book, literary agents are not familiar names. Johnson & Alcock is an institution in bookish EC1, where it’s been since the 1970s. It was founded in 1956 (as John Johnson Ltd), taken over in 1977 by Andrew Hewson, and merged with Michael Alcock Management in 2003. It represents William Trevor, Beryl Bainbridge and Dick Francis as well as Dame Edna Everage and David Suchet.

Although publishing has been forced to adapt as a result of digital technology and the demise of the Net Book Agreement that set prices, in the 20th century the book trade was defined by its congenial, clubby atmosphere.

“Commercial pressures mean that publishing is now a business like any other,” says Ed Wilson, who’s been with Johnson & Alcock since 2007. Sixty years ago, the agency’s first client was travel writer Peter Fleming, husband of the agent’s sister, actress Celia Johnson. Today Johnson & Alcock still looks after the estate and Wilson deals regularly with Fleming’s children (also beneficiaries of their uncle Ian’s James Bond books).

“You’ll very often find an agent is appointed literary executor to an author,” says Wilson. “Because the author knows they can rely on that agent.” Wilson stresses that his authors will not routinely accept the biggest publishing deal, but the offer that feels like the best long-term arrangement.

“A massive advance can kill an author – it can be much more debilitating than getting a small advance and building their career,” he explains. Although Joan Collins was a client and “swept in” to their cosy office in Clerkenwell Green, Wilson says celebrity is “not sustainable”. A famous client often signs a big deal for one memoir; it may be a success but it will likely have a limited shelf life compared to more literary works.

“I want my authors to be selling around the world in 10 years’ time,” says Wilson. The agency does represent Poirot actor David Suchet (“a real gentleman”) for his recent autobiography and Barry Humphries, best known for Dame Edna Everage.

“David and Barry are classic examples of brilliant writers who just happen to be famous,” says Wilson. Local publisher Head of Zeus (based in the same building) has been in talks to sign Dame Edna’s history of Australia in 100 objects. “It’s so filthy, it’s wonderful,” adds Wilson.

Of course, he’s also busy scouting for new talent. Wilson’s active on social media and receives between 50 and 100 submissions a week, though unsolicited manuscripts go beneath those from authors with recommendations or those mentored by Wilson on creative writing courses. Building a diverse client list also means working on books with brands, such as butchers The Ginger Pig and booze innovators Bompas & Parr, and exploring digital opportunities.

“Literary agents have no fear of eBooks or independent publishing,” says Wilson. Agents are also there when TV and film come calling. Long-term client Phil Rickman enjoyed a book sales boost from Midwinter of the Spirit, ITV’s adaptation of his occult thrillers.

“TV makes a huge difference,” says Wilson.

One of the firm’s most celebrated clients is William Trevor, whose The Story of Lucy Gault is under option to be filmed.

“It’s good for me as an agent who’s still building a list to have William Trevor as a benchmark,” says Wilson.

Meanwhile, Johnson & Alcock’s new generation is emerging. The poet and rapper Kate Tempest is publishing her first novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses, in April. Eleanor Wasserberg’s Foxlowe, about two sisters growing up within a commune in a crumbling country house, is out in June.

“It’s brilliant,” says Wilson of the author he mentored five years ago. He’s also busy building a crime and sci-fi list. As for the agency’s future in Clerkenwell Green, its building is being sold and rents are rising but EC1 remains the favoured location for their office (“a room full of dust and books”). 

“We’re hoping to stick around,” says Wilson. “It’s very conducive to our industry, it’s a place that editors and authors feel comfortable coming to visit. I love it here.”