By Sarah Weinman
An author’s career trajectory generally goes something like this: he or she writes books which are represented by literary agents who sell various rights to publishers. That arrangement can change over time if the author switches agents or publishers (as happens a lot, especially these days) or opts for non-traditional routes to reach an audience, but in its simplest form, the author-agent-publisher relationship lasts for a very long time — even after death.
To wit, some of the most popular authors at the moment happen to be dead. The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, who died in 2004, has sold more than 7 million copies in the United States alone and nearly 40 million copies worldwide. The biggest literary darling of 2008 was Roberto Bolano, whose posthumous success with novels like The Savage Detectives and 2666 has opened a vein for the publication of earlier, undiscovered works around the world. And one of the sweetest success stories of last few years was the reissue of Jetta Carleton’s magnificent 1962 novel The Moonflower Vine, the only book she published during her lifetime and has been in and out of print ever since.
The rights of those authors, however, are affiliated with family members or with literary agents. But there is a more obscure, even secretive world of corporations who don’t just represent famous dead writers like Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie and Eric Ambler, but own their intellectual property outright and manage them like brands.
For now, there are only two key players in the brand management world of literary estates, both of them based in the UK and both making their primary money from works for children, which they develop for film, television and other licensing opportunities. Chorion is run by Waheed Alli, a flashy, fashion-conscious figure in London circles who, at age 34, was the youngest appointee to the House of Lords in 1998. Alli bought Chorion in 2006, four years after its founding as a public company, which he subsequently took private. The bulk of Chorion’s £135m enterprise value stems from various successes with children’s brands, such as Ian Falconer’s Olivia the pig books, Noddy, Mr. Men, and characters originally created by Eric Carle and Beatrix Potter.
But all the revenue is coming from children’s books. At the end of June 2010 the company reported annual earnings of £51.7m, with £18.9m of that coming from its crime division — which also happens to comprise the bulk of its literary estates division. (Mary Durkan, Chorion’s literary estates manager, did not return repeated email requests for comment.)
Of those earnings from authors including Golden Age of Mystery stalwarts Edmund Crispin, Margery Allingham and Nicholas Freeling, the vast majority of money Chorion makes from its crime division come from the Agatha Christie estate, for which it paid £10 for a 64% controlling share in 1998.
Though Christie’s grandson, Mathew Pritchard, remains the point person for the best-selling crime novelist or all time, all business matters start and end with Chorion. The company, for example, reaps the primary benefits from HarperCollins UK’s frequent repackaging the Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple novels, often to coincide with new BBC’s TV adaptations featuring the elderly female detective (now played by Julia MacKenzie).
Chorion doesn’t just make money from Dame Agatha; several years ago they negotiated with Penguin’s American division for a spate of reissues of various Inspector Maigret novels by Georges Simenon, whose literary rights they paid £5.6m in 2001 to acquire 85% control. Though the books are still in print, a number of factors, including sales falling short of expectations and editorial shuffling, means the reissue project is on hold. An occasional series of reprints of Simenon’s standalone and noir work continues at the New York Review of Books’ Classics imprint, who report those books are among their steadiest sellers.
A more complex state of affairs exists with respect to Raymond Chandler, whose literary rights were long tied up in the hands of various film and television producers looking to jumpstart projects that never got off the ground. UK literary agent Ed Victor sold off the Chandler holdings to a private equity company in 1989, who held on but did very little with the property, save one television adaptation in 1998. They eventually sold the estate to Chorion in 2005 for an undisclosed sum. At the time, Lord Alli said in a statement that “the time was ripe for new versions of Chandler stories,” but to date, the only major piece of news was when Hamish Hamilton reissued five of the Philip Marlowe novels in hardcover, with the original UK covers.
Knopf, Chandler’s original American publisher, still keeps all of the author’s works in print through its paperback Vintage/Black Lizard arm, but they did not respond to requests for comment about their specific dealings with Chorion. (Parent company Random House spokesperson Stuart Applebaum said only that “It is a great privilege for Random House to be the post-lifetime steward of our authors’ books, and we take very seriously our responsibility to continue to bring new readers to their works.”)
Vintage/Black Lizard also publishes many of the earliest and best-known novels by Eric Ambler, widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of espionage fiction. The Ambler estate had been owned by Owatonna Media — itself spun off from the Ian Fleming Estate — which held 51% of it, in tandem with full rights to estates of long-ago successes John Creasey and Michael Innes. Owatonna Media was eventually sold in 2009 for £85,000 to the other literary estate brand management king, Coolabi.
Like Chorion, Coolabi makes most of its money from children’s properties. But much of the company’s personnel, including Chief Executive Jeremy Banks, had worked previously for Chorion, and were very keen to move into the literary estate business. “When I was brought in to run Coolabi, it was very much part of my strategy to build a business, cradle-to-grave — preschool to adult,” Banks explained in a telephone interview from his London office. “We focused first on kids’ brands because that was an easy enough thing to do, and because it takes a great deal more time and care to manage literary estates for non-children’s properties than some of the children’s assets.”
Coolabi was so keen to expand their literary estates division, in fact, that Coolabi made a serious offer to buy Chorion in April 2009, just a month after acquiring the Ambler, Creasey and Innes estates. The reasoning seemed rather sound: Chorion was more interested in its more lucrative divisions, and Coolabi wanted to add more marquee names. After a flurry of speculation when talks first leaked to the media, all fell quiet until Coolabi confirmed the deal had fallen through last October. Banks would not comment further on specifics of the deal, but did say that if he were in a position to acquire Chorion’s literary estates, “I absolutely would. I think the assets that they have are absolutely valuable, and there’s an awful lot more that can be done with them.”
By and large, most publishers and agents I spoke with did not want to go on the record about brand management companies like Chorion and Coolabi. Perhaps it’s because they don’t want to admit that for the likes of Agatha Christie, Eric Ambler and especially for Raymond Chandler, negotiating with brand management companies requires a whole different set of skills than what’s required for dealing with agents. (One publisher who did not wish to be named quipped archly that working with brand management companies is “exactly like working with an agency, except that they are even more attentive to what they imagine to be in their author’s interest.”)
That said, Maggie Topkis, proprietor of the crime fiction reprint house Felony & Mayhem Press, is a “huge fan” of Chorion, whom she deals with regularly as the American publisher for Edmund Crispin, Margery Allingham and Nicholas Freeling. “They are proactive,” Topkis said. “It’s like in the movie Tootsie, where Dustin Hoffman grows increasingly frustrated about dealing with agents and eventually asks his own, ‘So what’s your job?’ and the agent replies, ‘to field offers.’ That’s the way a lot of agents approach what they do. Chorion is more of a go-getter. They practice an old-school Dale Carnegie-style salesmanship.”
Banks describes Coolabi’s approach to brand management in more measured terms. “For us, when we sat down with publishing houses, what we are able to do is to say, ‘well look, here’s what we’ve done in the UK, we’ve increased book sales by X%, so here’s what we can do in France or Germany.’ We demonstrate that if you follow brand management path, [publishers] can increase sales materially. Do that in a number of different territories, then there’s a greater inclination to follow that brand management path.”
For now, companies like Chorion and Coolabi are few and far between. But at a time when publishing is in so much flux, and when agents like Andrew Wylie — one of the undisputed kings of literary estate representation –- rattle big publishers by setting up, however fleetingly, digital publishing initiatives like Odyssey Editions to produce e-book editions of their most prized backlist works, the possibility of new brand management companies sprouting in the future seems highly likely.
Topkis of Felony & Mayhem is one who wishes for such a possibility, while recognizing it would take some serious deviation from the traditional agenting arc. “It takes a particular type of irritating, pain-in-the-ass-type person to say this is the way things work and it’s a bad thing, or that there is a different way,” she said. “If you are that person, it’s relatively rare you get into a position of authority. And once you’re in that position, in order to implement brand management you need some money! It’s a tough sell, particularly today.”
Update: Article was amended to change the publisher of Agatha Christie from Penguin UK to HarperCollins UK, as per the first comment below.
DISCUSS: Do Author Brands Ever Die?