Jonny Geller: ‘I don’t want my manifesto to be grander than it was’

The stellar agent from Muswell Hill sticks to his guns, even with the backlash over his opinions on the book trade

�Jonny Geller’s office is a glass-fronted box beyond an island of assistants surrounded by books in the rabbit warren that is the Curtis Brown agency. The first question, as we sit down to two black coffees at the glass coffee table, comes from him. He wants to know what it’s all about – this interview. Usually people like me talk to the people on the other side of him. But he is interesting, I insist. And here’s proof: I visit Geller a few days after his “Agent’s Manifesto” in The Bookseller has made waves in the publishing community – much like everything else he does from this odd-shaped office lined with the books of authors he represents. I initially wanted to talk to him about this elusive book industry that everyone says is changing so much but which no-one really can pin down. Now, with the manifesto, there’s even more to discuss.

The Manifesto outlines a few rules that Geller wants to get straight with his industry and, as such, flew around the Tweet lists of the everybodys, anybodys and nobodys of the publishing world and beyond – a dispatch from the higher echelons. The main gist is that Agents love Authors, and everyone else should do too. Geller insists he doesn’t want it to be “grander than it was”. But it was called a Manifesto so I’m not exactly buying that. Why did he write it?

“I think it is because it has been brewing for about three years,” he explains. “Publishing is changing and, in the middle of this, the author is being neglected. In my life, I’m totally author-centred. Publishers have moved from a model where they were very close to authors to a very dangerous one where they just concentrate on the books. With a successful book, they have a good relationship with the author. But with the less successful books – the middle range – they seem to have forgotten the rules.” Publishing has polarised, he says, and the middle-range good writers are suffering. Everyone wants a hit book, but the only way you can get one is to nurture talent rather than demand. “Nobody really knows what a success will be. Did I know Girl With A Pearl Earring would sell four million copies worldwide? No. Did I know that The Finkler Question would sell so well? No. But we do know that these authors are quality and that they have got something to say and, if there’s belief behind them, there’s a possibility of that. You’ve got to have taste, you got to have confidence and you’ve got to have dynamism.”

Geller’s pitch is in full swing and I expect he’s fired up from a trip to a New York conference about the disappearing role of the literary agent. But I don’t mind – it’s clear that he wants to protect this industry which he joined as a failed actor in his 20s and has made his life. I’ve heard rumours that his career as an agent began like the plot of a novel. It’s true that he found a slush pile script while an assistant and turned it into a success – something he describes as “a real magical introduction”. Before that, it was not such a fairy tale. An out-of-work actor, he used to do door-to-door selling. He sold textured coatings. Textured coatings? “It’s an alternative to paint for the exterior of your house. It was a soul- destroying job, but I kept getting promoted. I was thinking, ‘No! I don’t want a company car, I want to be in the RSC.’ In the end, I just had a midlife crisis at 25. My friend said I was good at selling and loved books so I should work at an agency.” That’s not such a magical journey, I say “Oh I used to do a lot worse than that. We came up with a scheme to sell horse manure once, me and a friend, because it was free. We started packaging it up,” he laughs. “I think people do stuff like that when they are young. I didn’t do any internships though.”

The author he sold from the slush pile was lucky: Geller acknowledges that disappointingly, that type of thing couldn’t happen now. Of the 800 or so manuscripts that Curtis Brown receives monthly, very few make it beyond the meeting where they are given consideration. “New talent has been a real victim. Now we’ve polarised into brands, you either win a prize, get shortlisted for something or get on Richard and Judy. To create a book from nothing, from word of mouth is very, very rare and I think that the absolute basic fundamental of publishing is to find those word-of-mouth books.”

It seems that Geller is trying to hold onto some convention in the swirling whirl that technology has mixed up. He acknowledges that most authors need a story of their own now to be launched. “Not every author needs to be outgoing and beautiful, but what they do need is a reason to be there. Not all authors have that rags-to-riches story, so what we have to do is to make it interesting. Stieg Larsson became this huge phenomenon partly because of his work but also because there’s an amazing story to get into before you even open the book. You look at big books in the last 10 years and they have come from somewhere.”

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Geller also suspects that the flux in self-publishing will lead to authors building up their own following and cashing in to the big publishers. But he is defiant that they are not going to make the bulk of successes. This is fair enough really because, if they were, he’d be out of a job. He doesn’t believe this will happen though and, through the fog, he can see a revolution that involves everyone – authors, agents, publishers, readers and booksellers too.

He’s inspired by trips to his local bookshops in Muswell Hill. “I couldn’t be better served. In fact, I go in there wanting one book and leave with 10.” But other shops have a lot to answer for. “I can go then into another chain bookshop and the assistant would ask me to spell Dickens.” Has that really happened? “I did go into a chain bookshop and said, ‘I’m looking for Dickens – where do you sell that?’ And the assistant did say, ‘Do you mean by Clare Tomalin?’ I went, ‘No Charles Dickens, you know, the writer? Who has written some novels?’ I came away thinking, ‘Oh my God.’ I don’t blame that assistant because I think they have been undervalued for too long. A lot of independents are also missing tricks by sometimes not being competitive, sometimes not being very helpful or their range not reflecting the national taste.”

Geller’s visions of a national taste, catered to by an army of well-trained chain and independent booksellers who lead hungry readers to work by nurtured authors seem, well, a bit utopian, but then again, going from being an out-of-work actor turned textured coating seller to a star literary agent seems fairly impossible. One thing is certain: it will be exciting to see where this story goes.