At the top table: Caroline Michel, PFD

Nicholas Clee
News - Interviews Wednesday, 22 May 2019

In the second of our series of interviews with leading figures in the UK book industry, Nicholas Clee talks to Caroline Michel, literary agent and CEO at Peters, Fraser & Dunlop

On the day I meet Caroline Michel, she has enjoyed morning coffee with Edna (O'Brien) and lunch with Antonia (Fraser). Before we settle to our conversation, she takes a call from Ruthie (Rogers). It is a not untypical schedule for the Peters, Fraser & Dunlop (PFD) literary agent and CEO, one may assume. Here is the Caroline I've known since she was publicity manager at Cape in the mid-Eighties - even then, probably the best-connected person in most rooms, and certainly the most socially adroit and glamorous. Yet she has the gift of dropping names guilelessly, and of charming people who would be unlikely to gain admittance to her address book.

Charm and prestigious contacts are valuable assets in an agent. But one motivator of charm, the desire to be liked, can be a handicap. It was once possible, on a superficial acquaintance with her, to assume that Michel's charm was of the wanting-to-be-liked variety, and would leave her ill-equipped to cope with senior management positions in publishing or agenting. Her steeliness is not in doubt now. It has got her through tough times, and it continues to be her aid as she negotiates on behalf of her clients.

"The literary agency should be the place where all these deals begin"

Another way to misunderstand Michel is to think that coffee with Edna and lunch with Antonia (not her client, but represented by Jonathan Lloyd at Curtis Brown) sum her up. They convey a style of agenting, as a matter of contracting deals between one's book world friends, that some pundits expected to be swept away - or "disintermediated" as the jargon had it - in the new, digital-dominated world. What was the point of an agent, the pundits asked, when it had become possible for publishers to seek out authors directly, and for authors to manage straightforward contracts with distributors such as Amazon?

Like a good many predictions concerning the book industry, such as that ebooks would cause the extinction of print, this has proved to be a dud. It turns out that the agent's role, far from becoming redundant, may be more significant than ever before; and pursuing the various means of fulfilling it has been Michel's strategy, with a few distractions along the way, since arriving at PFD 12 years ago.

"When you and I started," she says, "there was the hardback and the paperback. Then there was the hardback, the trade paperback, and the paperback. Then there was the hardback, the trade paperback, the paperback, and the ebook. Then there was all that plus audio. Then all that plus podcasts; and, with the likes of Apple and Amazon involved, more places than ever before for serialisations and dramatisations; and more places than ever before for film and TV adaptations; and more markets than ever before opening up for deals.

"The book is the perfect starting place for any kind of platform for a story. And the literary agency should be the place where all these deals begin."

"Carmen taught me everything about publishing"

Where it started for Michel was at Chatto, then headed by Norah Smallwood, the first of a series of doughty women who have played important roles in her career. Smallwood retired in 1982, to be succeeded by Virago founder Carmen Callil. "Carmen taught me everything about publishing," Michel says. "One of her lessons was that you are nothing without an address book, and that you have to get out there, listen, and pick up ideas."

The job that made Michel's name was at Bloomsbury, where as publicity director she secured coverage for the new imprint in, it seemed, just about every media outlet available. Much of the attention was focused on the list run by Liz Calder, previously at Cape and associated with some of the starriest names in literary fiction. Meanwhile CEO Nigel Newton was, except in the trade press, in the background. Michel had to explain her strategy to him. "Nigel understood that although the whole initiative was his, the world was excited by Liz, who had worked with incredible writers, created an amazing list at Cape, and was - still is - a beautiful, charismatic woman.'" If anyone could deliver this message, Michel could.

There followed a "roller-coaster" period at literary magazine Granta, which was launching a book list. Working life there was complicated by editor Bill Buford's preoccupation with a book of his own, Among the Thugs. "Bill would never edit until the magazine was just about to go to press - and then he'd want to change everything. You'd get these irate calls from Richard Ford or Jonathan Raban, yelling, ‘What is he doing?' But at the same time, they respected him as an editor."

Michel left Granta to have her first of three children. Guests at the launch party for Bloomsbury five years earlier had observed her, when the dancing started, locked in the embrace of Matthew Evans, chairman of Faber; the couple married in 1991. They separated in 2010, but remained close, and were together at his death from leukaemia in 2016.

At home with her toddler, she called Anthony Cheetham, who had bought Weidenfeld & Nicolson and set up a new publishing group, Orion. Joining this company was slightly awkward, because five years earlier Michel had spent just 24 hours at Weidenfeld before deciding instead to take up Nigel Newton's offer at Bloomsbury; nevertheless, "George [Weidenfeld] was gracious beyond belief." Her allure was reported to have been the factor that persuaded Alan Clark, the maverick Tory MP and former minister, to entrust Weidenfeld with his Diaries, a notable bestseller.

While longer than 24 hours, this association with Weidenfeld was again brief, as Gail Rebuck, CEO of Random House, invited her to join the group as associate publisher, later promoting her to succeed Frances Coady in charge of Vintage. Michel's colleagues also included Carmen Callil at Chatto, Tom Maschler and David Godwin at Cape, and Christopher MacLehose at Harvill. "It wasn't an easy place at that point," she comments. Here is where her toughness first became apparent, both in dealing with office politics and in advising other paperback publishers that RH would not be renewing their licences in its authors' titles, which it clawed back for the Vintage list.

"Gail gave everyone the space in which to make things work"

She loved the job, which brought her back to working with the cream of contemporary fiction - authors including Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain, Sebastian Faulks, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and Henning Mankell. Of Rebuck, she says: "I had tremendous admiration for her. She gave everyone the space in which to make things work. And she had remarkable discipline, making sure she left the office on time every day to be with her family. Whereas I'm pathetic about that."

Michel had been at Random House for nine years when HarperCollins CEO Vicky Barnsley offered her a new kind of challenge, to run the HarperPress division, where she launched the literary list HarperPerennial. "This was a different kind of big book. I got to know Simon Schama [he is now her client], and Katie Hickman (also a client), and Lisa Jardine became a great friend. I love the confidence, which HarperCollins still has, to do big non-fiction really well."

There were rumours at the time that some books were not performing to expectations, and that there were conflicts among the top executives. Michel says: "I think there are always conflicts in publishing, because it's about people and their passions. Amanda [Ridout, MD] was one of the most driven sales people I've ever met. She was tough to work with, but fantastic."

During her spell at Random House, a couple of literary agencies had approached her with job offers. Agenting was not for her, she had thought at the time. Now, when William Morris came calling and invited her to run its London office, she was receptive. "The publishing world was definitely becoming more committee-oriented," she says. "Decisions were done through committees - not just one committee, but legions of them. I realised that I was spending more time managing people than doing what I really loved."

She flew out to Los Angeles to watch her new colleagues at work. "They were larger than life, and they were determined to make successes of their clients. I loved that. And I loved that you could love something, bring everybody with you, and get out there and sell it."

"I'd walk into a room, and it would go quiet"

Back in London, she signed up Sarah Raven as her first client, "and then I was lucky because Richard Attenborough wanted to do his autobiography, and it snowballed from there". However, when the offer to run a UK agency came up two years later, she took it. Now, she admits that she should have carried out a more thorough due diligence. "I was approached by a group of people who said, ‘There are huge problems at PFD: would you be interested in helping to sort them out?' I said, ‘Great - I love those people at PFD!' I always think that everything is negotiable; but I hadn't really appreciated the deep unhappiness that had been there for years since they had sold the company to CSS Stellar." (Stellar, a US management group, had bought PFD in 2001.) Within days of her arrival, there was a mass walkout of agents and staff, who left to form United Agents, taking more than 2,000 clients with them. The only people who remained were Michel, the veteran agent Michael Sissons, and an accountant. A blizzard of lawsuits ensued.

"It was horrible. I'd always thought that I had been the luckiest person in the world to fall into publishing, among such a lovely group of people. Then you discover that people you thought were friends… well, you learn who your friends are. I'd walk into a room, and it would go quiet - it was that bad. But Matthew was supportive and fabulous, the kids were wonderful, my friends were wonderful."

What did she do? "I just had to be single-minded. There was no choice. You build it back." Andrew Neil, who led a consortium that bought PFD from Stellar in 2008, said of her: "She took nothing but incoming missiles and behaved throughout with remarkable professionalism and sang froid." Neil has since stepped back from PFD, which in 2010 merged with Michael Foster's talent agency MF Management. This association has also come to an end, and PFD is once again a specialist literary agency with, Michel says, "a board of fabulous shareholders" including Aberdeen Standard Investments' chairman Martin Gilbert and Ian Hannam (Hannam & Partners), and chaired by Charles Harman of JP Morgan.

The agency that the refuseniks had abandoned was not completely bereft. "The interesting thing about our business is that contracts stay put," Michel says. "So in spite of it all, we had a rights base on which to rebuild… PFD had a 90-year history, and most of its books were still in copyright - but very few were in print."

In Michel's office - a comfortable oasis, in an otherwise nondescript building on New Oxford Street, with an antique desk, sofa, paintings and crammed bookshelves - is a proud display of one of her successes in this area: the handsome new Penguin editions of works by Georges Simenon. "When we took over Simenon [in 2011], there were four books in print with Penguin, and perhaps a dozen with Melville House in the US. We will have sold a million copies of Simenon in the English language by the end of this year."

Her realisation that the PFD backlist had huge potential coincided with the arrival of new means of exploiting it. The agency went into partnership with Bloomsbury Reader to reissue works by, among others, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Angela Huth, Storm Jameson, Gavin Lyall, Rose Macaulay, VS Pritchett, and Bernice Rubens. Later, it launched its own list, Ipso, since expanded and renamed Agora, with Kate Evans as publisher.

"I know that authors may be thrilled just to have their books accepted. But this is a business"

Agora also publishes a select list of frontlist titles, working with Amazon. This is a favourable arrangement for many authors, Michel says: they benefit from more generous royalties (50% of receipts) than a mainstream publisher would offer, and "a more holistic approach, with more transparency". Amazon, she reports, has been a helpful and constructive partner. "People can be very down on Amazon - it reminds me of that Monty Python line about what have the Romans ever done for us. I can remember when Waterstones stopped seeing publishers who didn't do a certain amount of business with them, and when the supermarkets dominated the bestseller lists. Publishing was in a kind of stranglehold. Amazon came along, and made available a huge range of backlist books that booksellers never stocked. Then they kick-started the ebook market, and made it possible to have every book available, at any time. How great is that? And Amazon also gives authors the opportunity to have some control over their own marketing."

The Agora frontlist will remain of modest size - PFD certainly has no ambition to disintermediate publishers. Its backlist plans for authors who moved to United Agents sometimes require negotiations; but things have moved on in 12 years. "St John [Donald, UA managing director) and I meet regularly. We've put it all behind us, and I'm a huge admirer of what he has done at UA. We're very different businesses now." UA has a substantial talent division, and is a partner in production company Chapter One. Michel's sole venture into TV production, with ITV's Maigret, turned out well, but was "nail-biting", and left her convinced that "I would like to invest our money in different ways."

In particular, she is convinced that there is no need to diversify when literary IPs offer so much potential - another reason why authors may need intermediaries more than ever. It all starts with the contract. "The threats to author earnings that I see are that publishers are trying to demand more territories, and that they want to have boiler-plate contracts, even across vast conglomerates. But books aren't like that.

"You'd think, given the business we're in and the number of contracts we do, that they would be routine. In fact, our contracts can take three to six months to negotiate. That's because we as agents have to make sure every royalty is pushed as far as it can go, every escalator [provisions for increased royalties on the reaching of sales or other targets] is pushed as far as it can go, every bonus that we could possibly claim is in place, every discount is properly looked at, every territory scrutinised.

"It's a disgrace, what publishers try to get away with sometimes. I know that authors may be thrilled just to have their books accepted. But this is a business. Our job, of course, is to find the best publisher for a writer; but it's also to make sure that the writer is properly paid."

"There is a massive world for our books"

Then there is getting an author's work to as many territories as possible. "Right from when I started here, a priority has been to have a really good foreign rights department - one that didn't use sub-agents, but went to publishers' offices in Spain, Germany, Hungary, Korea, Taiwan, China or anywhere, and got to know the editors and the kinds of books they liked.

"There is a massive world for our books. China has opened up, just in the last 10 years: we've sold 14 million books by Bear Grylls there. Jeanette's [Winterson's] Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal sold 50,000 copies in China in two months. Regularly, Lynda Gratton's books sell over 350,000 copies in Japan. And we're doing deals in new countries all the time. Vietnam is starting to buy books. We did a deal in Azerbaijan the other day."

Then there are the various platforms for writers' work. How To Fail by Elizabeth Day (represented by Michel's colleague Nelle Andrew) began as a podcast, became a bestselling book, and next a theatre show (from Fane Productions, a sister company to the Curtis Brown agency, and one of a number of organisations that are now enabling certain writers to earn reasonable fees for public performances). Fane is also the producer of Simon Schama's tour promoting his essay collection Wordy. Ruby Wax's Sane New World was an Amazon show as well as a book; she is now on tour with How To Be Human, the theatre show based on her 2018 bestseller. And, as noted earlier, media companies searching for strong content have proliferated.

"We have agents here who are digital-savvy, promotions savvy, marketing savvy, internationally savvy, film and TV savvy, public speaking savvy, and so on," Michel says. "We work in every media sector, in every country we can."

Her enthusiasm for and optimism about books and authors are fuelled not only by her work at PFD but also by her role as chair of Hay Festivals, which grows every year, not just in Wales but overseas. (She is also chair of the British Film Institute Trust, a trustee of Somerset House, vice president of the London Library, a member of the Arts and Media Honours committee, and committee member for the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year award.) "Ticket sales [at Hay] this year are up by a third," she reports. "As the world becomes more unsettled, people are really interested in debating, and learning, and storytelling - these are things that will never go away."

The internet is killing books; Amazon is destroying the book trade; writing as a career is doomed: Michel isn't having these prophecies. She says: "This couldn't be a better time to be a writer - or an agent."

Caroline Michel - publishing career
1982 Chatto & Windus
1984 Hutchinson
1985 Jonathan Cape
1986 Bloomsbury
1990 Granta
1992 Orion
1992 Vintage, Random House
2001 HarperPress, HarperCollins
2005 William Morris
2007 Peters, Fraser & Dunlop
Authors include Rosie Boycott, Sir Michael Caine, Saul David, Jessica Fellowes, Daisy Goodwin, Lynda Gratton, Bear Grylls, Katie Hickman, Paul McKenna, Edna O'Brien, Allison Pearson, Sarah Raven, Simon Schama, Rose Tremain, Ruby Wax, Jeanette Winterson

Also on BookBrunch

Featured Video


more charts »