Kate Jones: Literary agent with flawless taste
Wednesday 06 February 2008
Kate Jones was one of the most brilliant literary agents of her generation, and leaves behind an extraordinary list of devoted authors. At the time of her death, at the age of 46, she was at the peak of her powers and changing the character of agenting in London – by sheer force and warmth of her personality.
Traditionally, literary agents are the invisible partners in the unholy publishing triangle of author, agent and publisher. They negotiate "the deal" – the huge, life-transforming advances that have all too often enriched authors in the short-term, impoverished publishers, and left both sides worse off in the long term before walking away to leave the author and the publisher to getting on as best they can. Not Kate Jones. She was a brilliant deal-maker, with more than her fair share of the Holy Grail of authors: "the big six-figure advance". But she was much more than just the marriage-broker, bringing the two sides to the table. She was also, as many of her authors have said, "a mentor, a soul-mate", who shaped their writing and transformed their lives.
She brought literary agenting out of the shadows by vigorously championing and promoting her authors, fulfilling many of the functions that she thought publishers were neglecting. If, for example, publishers were too mean to have a launch party, Jones would throw one at her house in Kentish Town, north London. And these were not the dreary occasions that often take place in publishing – warm cheap wine and peanuts – because she and her husband, John Tackaberry, were great bons viveurs with style and élan. These celebrated events attracted diverse collections of writers, journalists, publishers and even – such was her spontaneous generosity – competing literary agents.
Kate Jones was born in Essex in 1961 and had a conventional, happy childhood, through primary and local comprehensive schools to Goldsmiths' College, London University, where she read English and took a First. The route to the top in literary London is tough, particularly for women (even now) and she started on a dismal salary as an assistant at the Tessa Sayle Literary Agency before moving to Macmillan where she was also over-qualified, underpaid and exploited – as junior publishing staff still are.
But her exceptional talents were recognised before long and she was headhunted to Hamish Hamilton where she became an editor in 1990 at the age of 29. She had far-ranging and brilliant taste. Hugely knowledgeable and passionate about crime, she introduced some of the most successful writers, especially women, to the UK, including Janet Evanovich, Sara Paretsky, Imogen Parker and, now writing million-copy bestsellers, Sarah Dunant.
Always incensed by political injustice, she published Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four's Proved Innocent (1990), his account of his wrongful imprisonment, commissioned Paul Foot's sideways look at democracy, The Vote, How It Was Won and How It Was Undermined (eventually published in 2005, after his death) and Martin Bell's memoir of his experiences as a foreign correspondent, In Harm's Way (1995), among many others. Just as some agents are only deal-makers, so some editors are only bureaucrats, pushing manuscripts through the treacle-like processes of a publishing house. Never Kate Jones, who was an impassioned advocate for her authors, and who understood intuitively how both to get the best not only for them but also from them.
Jones's life was always eventful, if only because she crammed so much in. She lived in Peckham in a handsome fifth-floor flat until a boiler explosion in 1994 which not only destroyed her flat but partially demolished the entire block. Had she been inside, she would have been killed under tons of rubble. The happy consequence was that she had to move in with her boyfriend, who proposed not long after.
She and John Tackaberry QC were married by the ex-nun and writer Karen Armstrong in 1996. John Tackaberry is Britain's leading arbitration lawyer and his approach to resolving disputes, by finding common ground within an agreed framework, was later enormously influential on Kate's style as a literary agent. Eschewing confrontation, no matter how unreasonable the publisher, she would strive for the best outcome for both publisher and author, while never forgetting that she was her authors' champion.
In 1995 she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and she fought it with steely integrity and bravery, devotedly supported by John, whose first wife had died some years earlier of the same disease. She was off work for a prolonged period but even while recovering, she wasn't idling. There was always more to Kate Jones than simply the consummate professional and when her author Martin Bell stood as an independent candidate against Neil Hamilton in Tatton in 1997, she took off to be his electoral agent. She helped Bell win one of the most thrilling results of that decisive election, overturning the third safest Tory majority in Britain. The paperwork afterwards nearly drove her demented but, as her later career would show, she was an agent extraordinaire. The following year she returned to Penguin, where she was promoted to Editorial Director of Viking Press where she worked with, among many others, Peter Mayle, Barry Unsworth, Ronan Bennett and Tracy Chevalier, whose first novel she published.
She left Viking for Ian Fleming Publications to run the James Bond estate. Although it was a surprising move, she handled the estate with the style and aplomb of a Bond girl. The current renaissance of 007 has much to do with her, because she moved the publishing to Penguin, who brought new zest to the titles, and she helped create clever spin-offs including Charlie Higson's wildly successful "young Bond", the dazzling hero for younger teenagers. Now Penguin is on the cusp of publishing Sebastian Faulks's Devil May Care, a new Bond novel, with a reported first print-run of 250,000 copies.
It was a logical move from revitalising one literary estate to representing a range of active authors and finding new talent and so in 2003 Kate Jones and Margaret Halton, who had also worked for a number of publishers, set up the London office of ICM, the New York powerhouse agency. Other gamekeepers had turned poacher like this but Kate Jones's was an especially visible and notably successful transfer. She rapidly built up a roster of authors who were the envy of more experienced agents. She worked especially well with journalists, standing behind important books from Robert Peston, Mick Brown, Rageh Omaar and Guy Browning. She recently took on Katharine Whitehorn's autobiography Selective Memory, published so successfully in 2007. Activists were also prominent on her list, including the Palestinian human rights lawyer and writer Raja Shehadeh, and Naomi Klein, who described her as "a fierce, fiery and fun advocate".
Jones sold Cherie Blair's memoir to Little, Brown for a sum that dwarfs Tony Blair's income from JP Morgan. Her literary taste was flawless too. She had recently signed Andrea Ashworth, and last year she moved William Boyd to Bloomsbury where she oversaw the enormously successful publication of his novel Restless, which doubled the sales of his previous books.
With her own adored daughter, Molly, in mind she took a huge – and of course deeply informed – interest in children's books and signed up a number of writers, including Charlie Fletcher and Louise Arnold. Watch these names: they will surely be superstars of the future.
Last month Kate Jones had her annual check-up for breast cancer and was given the all-clear, but was experiencing stitches, stomach pains and exhaustion. Always uncomplaining, she checked into a spa to recuperate, but the pains increased and she was admitted to hospital, where she was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer.
Kate Jones, editor and literary agent: born Tilbury, Essex 11 July 1961; married 1996 John Tackaberry (one daughter); died London 1 February 2008.
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