One hundred years ago, as Europe emerged from the shadow of the Great War and began the considerable task of rebuilding, it was clear that the years 1914-18 had had a profound impact on the social fabric of the United Kingdom. With a generation of men conscripted and sent far away from home, the opportunities for women to step into areas of work formerly reserved for men had proliferated. Some became railway guards and ticket collectors. Some became bank cashiers and clerks. And yet more were asked to step into positions vacated by their absent bosses and company directors.
Audrey Heath and Alice May Spinks, then both in their mid-thirties, were two of those women. Secretaries at the literary agency Curtis Brown & Massie – the partnership founded when Canadian agent Hughes Massie joined up with Albert ‘Curtis’ Brown and his fledgling agency in 1905 – they had found themselves in the unusual position of running the agency while their employers were absent on war business. Here they had worked with some of the biggest names in the literary landscape – among them Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of the original Tarzan stories, and the American adventurer Jack London, whose work had been wrested away from its past representation by Hughes Massie. Keeping the agency afloat during the war years brought much professional pride to Audrey and Alice. The war brought heartbreak too, with Alice’s husband, Sydney Spinks, perishing in Flanders in 1917 and leaving her a single mother to their five-year-old daughter. Yet by the time of the armistice in 1918, the agency was in good health, poised to thrive again now that peace had returned.
As the many soldiers from the continent and further afield began to be repatriated to Britain in late 1918 and ‘19, however, it became clear that Audrey and Alice’s roles would have to change once more. Now that Albert ‘Curtis’ Brown and Hughes Massie had returned to their agency, Audrey and Alice were expected to step back from running the company to support their directors instead. Yet the years 1914-18 had taught both women an enormous amount about running a literary agency, negotiating contracts, dealing with writers and taking work out to market. Having become so engaged with the process, they were reluctant to return to their more prosaic duties and accept that they would not be at the forefront of literary agenting again. And so, rather than settle back into subservient roles assisting the returning menfolk, Audrey and Alice made a bold gambit; they would strike out on their own, founding a new literary agency where they could originate and represent a fresh stable of writers. In 1919, they departed Curtis Brown & Massie – and A.M. Heath, incorporated as A.M. Heath Ltd in 1921, was born.
Striking out on their own would not be an easy task, neither personally nor professionally, for Audrey and Alice. An unmarried woman and a widowed single mother made an unlikely coupling in a literary world dominated by male heavyweights. But their minds were made up. Taking an office on Golden Square in London’s Soho and christening the company after their own names – the ‘A.M.’ came from Alice May, with Audrey donating her surname ‘Heath’ – they began business.
All young companies need a stroke of luck, and for A.M. Heath this came with the dissolution of the Curtis Brown & Massie partnership in 1920. Having returned from war to find the company changed, Albert ‘Curtis’ Brown and Hughes Massie decided to go their separate ways, Curtis Brown reverting to trading under his own name and Hughes Massie establishing his own agency, which would go on to represent Agatha Christie. Curtis Brown & Massie had exclusively handled the UK rights for the New York-based Brandt Agency since its founding in 1913 – but now, unable to decide where their loyalties lay between the two men, Brandt chose a different path, appointing the new company A.M. Heath as their sole agents in the United Kingdom. It was the beginning of an enduring relationship between the two agencies which exists to this day, and provided the fledgling company with the necessary foundations on which it could grow.
Significant home-grown success was slow to come, but when it came, it caused lasting ripples in London’s literary world. Radclyffe Hall had already published six novels, to not insignificant sales and critical acclaim, by the time her 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness, was published. Represented by Audrey Heath, Hall had been living with her lover, Una Troubridge, since 1917, and in writing The Well of Loneliness she intended to spark public conversation about homosexuality, and in particular relationships between women. This was a cause A.M. Heath was steadfastly behind, with Audrey championing the novel to publishers and the agency’s new typist and literary advisor, Patience Ross – who had joined in 1926 and would herself go on to live with her long-term female lover – supporting the submission. In an age when women had only just been enfranchised, and in which homosexuality would remain a criminal offence for a further four decades, The Well of Loneliness was bound to cause a sensation – and so it did.
Jonathan Cape, who had opened his publishing house only seven years before, published The Well of Loneliness in 1928, and it quickly attracted the ire of the Sunday Express, who began a campaign dedicated to suppressing the novel. Soon, the Conservative Home Secretary instructed Cape that the novel was ‘detrimental to the public interest’ and demanded it be withdrawn under threat of criminal proceedings. When Cape attempted to circumvent the order, licensing rights to a small French publisher who could in turn ship copies back into the UK, the stage was set for a showdown between the young publisher and the political elite. By November that year, The Well of Loneliness was the centrepiece of a famous trial under the Obscene Publications Act. Luminaries such as E.M. Forster, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf turned out in support of the novel, but all their efforts were in vain. The Chief Magistrate held that the book might reasonably be expected to ‘corrupt those whose minds are open to immoral influences’, and that any work which made a case for recognising and tolerating homosexuals – rather than depicting the ‘moral and physical degradation which indulgence in those vices must necessarily involve’ – was by definition obscene. Accordingly, Jonathan Cape was found guilty of obscenity – a conviction upheld on appeal – and all copies of the book were ordered to be destroyed. Though it survived a similar trial in the United States, and would go on to sell upwards of 100,000 copies in the United States alone, The Well of Loneliness would not be officially available in the United Kingdom until social mores had moved on, and Falcon Press issued their own edition in 1949. A.M. Heath had had their first significant literary success – but, at least in the United Kingdom, it had ended before it had truly begun.
By the late 1920s, co-founder Alice’s role in the company was beginning to change. Having remarried in 1921 to William Drake and given birth to two more daughters in 1924 and 1926, it had become apparent that the demands of running a young family alongside a fledgling business were, perhaps, too much to reasonably bear, and she began to withdraw from an active role in the agency. It was time for a changing of the guard. By the mid-1920s, the agency had swollen with the appointment of various temporary and secretarial staff. Then, in 1932, a young Englishman with a very specific talent joined the agency – an appointment that set A.M. Heath on the path it has travelled up until the present day.
Cyrus Brooks was born in 1890 and, as a young man, had moved to Berlin to teach English as a foreign language, becoming fluent in German at the same time. Still there when the Great War began in July 1914, Cyrus found himself stranded – and, like the thousands of other male citizens of the Allied Powers who were, by chance, studying, working or holidaying in Germany at the outbreak of war, he was detained in the civilian internment camp Ruhleben, under the terms laid out by the Geneva Convention. It was here that Cyrus spent his war – and, by the time of the Armistice in 1918, he had fallen completely in love with German and European literature. It was a passion that would dictate the direction of his life. Finding work as a translator, he spent the 1920s producing English versions of books such as Erich Kästner’s classic Emil and the Detectives, working with the firm European Books Ltd, which sought to bring European works in translation to English markets. In 1930, a chance meeting between Audrey Heath and the directors of European Books led to the two firms sharing offices, perhaps even collaborating in business where possible – and, in 1931, this provisional arrangement transformed into the practice we would now think of as ‘co-agenting’, with A.M. Heath becoming the exclusive English language agents for European Books. Cyrus himself transitioned into being a member of A.M. Heath in a full-time capacity and, in no short order, he would become the agency’s third director.
The passionately cosmopolitan Cyrus and his European experience opened up another door for A.M. Heath Ltd. At the time, English and American publishers had not yet begun to fully exploit the translation rights to the books they published – and, although Stanley Unwin, who had founded his firm George Allen & Unwin on the very day the Great War was declared, was taking the first steps towards formalising a foreign rights department at a publishing house, agents had not taken the potential of foreign rights seriously. Where others saw confusion, Cyrus saw opportunity. His translation work had already opened his eyes to the opportunities of European markets, and Cyrus soon began representing the agency’s entire list in translation – in effect becoming the United Kingdom’s first foreign rights agent, and A.M. Heath the first foreign rights specialists. Exploiting its early relationship with the US Brandt agency, A.M. Heath would go on, across the century, to become the UK representatives for many American agencies such as MacIntosh & Otis, Robert Lescher, Russell & Volkening, Scott Meredith – and would represent European translation rights for some of these agencies too.
The 1930s saw the first sustained period of growth for the agency, much of it fuelled by the agency’s ‘serial department’ – a side of the literary agency unthinkable today. At this moment in history, the sale of short stories to magazines, and in particular the ‘women’s weeklies’, could form a considerable portion of an author’s income, and A.M. Heath worked tirelessly to support its authors in this regard. The women’s weeklies were a breeding ground for future talent as well, and it was here that Archibald Joseph ‘A.J.’ Cronin – who would later move to be represented by Cyrus for his translation rights – first published his Dr. Finlay stories, which would go on to tremendous success, both in print and on screen. Cronin was so successful as a novelist and short story writer that, during the problematic post-war years to come, the commission on his royalties was the difference between A.M. Heath’s continued existence and it becoming another victim of the war.
So too were A.M. Heath discovering and breaking new novelists across these decades. Winston Graham, who in the post-War era would find elevated fame with his Poldark novels, first began publishing crime and thrillers in 1935 with The House with the Stained Glass Windows. Patrick Hamilton’s novels of restless young men in London – including the 1935 ‘trilogy’ Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky and Hangover Square, 1941’s autobiographical foray around a London on the brink of war – were widely praised and would go on to be regarded as classics of the inter-war period. The Irish literary novelist Flann O’Brien began his career in 1939 with At Swim Two Birds (though his most enduring novel, The Third Policeman, would not find a publisher until the year after his death, in 1967). And perhaps the greatest commercial success of the inter-war years for the agency was Geoffrey Household’s 1939 novel, Rogue Male. The story of an unnamed British sportsman who sets out to assassinate a European dictator – and, having been caught in the attempt, must evade authorities abroad and at home – was an instant hit, adapted into the 1941 Hollywood movie Man Hunt and remade since. It has remained in print to this day.
Others among A.M. Heath’s best-selling clients of the inter-war period were stars of their time, but fell out of favour with readers as times and tastes changed. Henry Williamson’s 1927 novel Tarka the Otter was an early success for the agency and is today considered a classic of rural literature, but from the 1920s and into the ‘50s and ‘60s – when he wrote his fifteen-part Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight – Williamson wrote and published more than fifty other titles, most of which are lost to today’s readers. Marguerite Steen, whose 1934 novel Matador was one of the agency’s biggest successes to date, would publish more than thirty novels in her career – but, after her death, would have to wait until the emergence of e-books and new markets in the 21st century to be rediscovered. Meanwhile, Jerrard Tickell – whose most famous novel, Appointment with Venus, would not be published until 1951, the same year that it was adapted into a successful film starring David Niven – first began publishing in 1928, with the mid-1930s seeing a sudden increase in his output, five novels published in a little over two years between 1936 and 1938. And perhaps A.M. Heath’s hottest commercial success of this inter-war period was an author we represented on behalf of the New York Brandt Agency, Frederick Schiller Faust – who, writing under the pen-name of Max Brand, published dozens of upmarket Westerns, as well as selling stories to the weekly magazines (and all while secretly harbouring an ambition to write epic verse).
The inter-War years had established A.M. Heath as a serious literary concern, blazing the way in the new field of foreign rights, establishing relationships that would last generations with big US agencies, and fostering a stable of home-grown authors, many of whom would go on – like Winston Graham – to transform their early career successes into something even greater in the post-War years. But the successes of 1919-1939 would mean nothing if the agency could not survive the gathering storm that was the Second World War…
The declaration of war with Nazi Germany in September 1939 was to have lasting ramifications not only for A.M. Heath Ltd, but on the publishing industry at large. The years between the wars had seen the birth of many publishers and imprints that still exist today – with Jonathan Cape, Michael Joseph and Victor Gollancz all founding their firms in this period – but with paper rationed and incomes from overseas necessarily curtailed, the number of books published during 1939-45 was severely compromised, affecting publishers, writers, booksellers and literary agents. As a young company, A.M. Heath had little ballast.
In the years preceding the war, A.M. Heath had bidden farewell to its early offices in Golden Square, moving first to offices in Princes Arcade and Jermyn Street in Piccadilly, and then to cramped offices off Regent Street itself. It was here that they weathered the storm of the Blitz over London’s skies. If the years of the First World War had seen Audrey Heath and Alice ‘May’ Spinks growing in confidence enough to launch their own agency, the Second World War was the blow that almost killed it. A.M. Heath had built both its reputation and its financial security on regular, reliable incomes from overseas – but, with the advent of war, all of that came to an end. Not only was all continental business necessarily at a standstill, but strict exchange controls kept the American publishers and agents on whose business A.M. Heath relied from sending royalty incomes overseas. To complicate matters further, Cyrus’ talents with the German language were an invaluable weapon in the intelligence war being waged against Nazi Germany. He was seconded to Bletchley Park, where he was to play a vital role in the ‘black propaganda’ unit, creating radio broadcasts to provoke tensions, undermine German morale and ultimately help disrupt the Nazi war effort.
Without Cyrus, ensuring the survival of the agency fell to Audrey Heath – who had shepherded a literary agency through war once before – and Patience Ross. But neither could protect the company against the falling incendiaries of German attack. The Regent Street office was twice bombed during German air-raids on London, and if it wasn’t for the prescient thinking of Patience Ross, the company’s records would have been lost forever. Anticipating disaster, Patience had taken to keeping a copy of the contracts and ledgers in the chicken coop at the country home she kept with her long-term partner. Even so, unable to constantly update the chicken shed with fresh duplicates, what survived the war was only a partial record. There might have been enough in the chicken shed for the company to have a chance at future survival, but some of A.M. Heath’s history was lost forever when the German bombs rained down.
At the conclusion of the war, Cyrus Brooks was offered a new post that, had he taken it, would have changed the course of A.M. Heath forever. Presented with the opportunity to reorganise post-War German publishing, he instead resolved to return to A.M. Heath and help shepherd it into the new era. These post-War years found A.M. Heath working hard to recover the ground lost during the war, rejuvenating relationships with the all-important American agencies and the European publishers who were, at last, able to return to business. A pivotal moment came in 1951 when A.M. Heath supported one of Cyrus’ old contacts, Lothar Mohrenwitz – who had escaped Nazi Germany in 1934 and found his way to London, where he called on his old friend from happier days in Berlin – in founding Mohrbooks, a new agency based in Zurich, Switzerland, with his young associate Rainer Heumann. A.M. Heath’s relationship with Mohrbooks persists to this day, and in 1972 they would join forces with the Milan-based Agenzia Letteraria Internazionale to help establish a new independent agency in Paris, La Nouvelle Agence, headed by Mary Kling.
With an expanding set of allegiances and Europe open for business once again, the agency felt itself in true flight for the first time. And the years after the war brought home-grown success as well. Richard Mason, a young novelist who had first sent Audrey material when he was a sixth-former at Bryanston School in Dorset, had his first success with The Wind Cannot Read in 1946 – but would go on to greater things when his 1957 novel, The World of Suzie Wong, the story of a young Englishman in Malaya who falls in love with a Chinese prostitute, became a global bestseller. In fact, The World of Suzie Wong was so successful – adapted into a movie of 1958, spawning unofficial sequels, a theatrical production and even a ballet – that its author never had cause to work again.
One of the most extraordinary stories in A.M. Heath’s history began in 1955, when Lobsang Rampa, an exiled Tibetan Lama draped in saffron robes, appeared on the doorstep of our Dover Street office with a copy of his memoir, The Third Eye, his chronicle of growing up in the Chakpori Lamasery in Tibet. Rampa claimed to have undergone a procedure in which a small hole – the eponymous ‘third eye’ – was drilled into his forehead to propagate powers of clairvoyance, and in his story he spoke of how he had come face to face with yetis, and even discovered the ossified body of his former self, from one of his past incarnations. Intrigued by a client as extraordinary as this, Cyrus secured a deal with Secker & Warburg, who published the book in 1956. It was an international sensation. Yet not everyone in the scholarly community was convinced of the veracity of Rampa’s account. By 1958, after an investigation by an eminent Tibetologist and his private detective, the Daily Mail had exposed Rampa’s lie: rather than an exiled Tibetan Lama, his real name was in fact Cyril Hoskin and he had been born, the son of a plumber, in Plympton, Devon. Hoskin had never been to Tibet, spoke no Tibetan – and The Third Eye was one of the most audacious hoaxes in publishing history. Confronted with these allegations, Hoskin was defiant: perhaps he had been born in Plympton, Devon, but his body was now inhabited by the soul of the Tibetan monk. No matter the authenticity of the work: Lobsang Rampa – as he was thereafter known – would go on to publish a further nineteen books across his career, without using a literary agent.
By the mid-1950s, with the war a decade in the past, new allegiances formed and clients, both new and old, enjoying fresh success – and a flourishing serial department run by Mrs Hetty Nutbrown – the sense was that A.M. Heath was at last coming into its own, and that there was now enough stability and sense of foundation for the agency to soar. But great change was still to come.
The later 1950s represented the next great changing of the guard at A.M. Heath. With the finances now stabilised after the crunch years of the Second World War, and the agency in the ascendant, its elder statesmen were contemplating the winding-down of their careers. The agency’s founder Audrey Heath sadly passed away in 1958, and by this time neither Patience Ross nor Cyrus Brooks were attending our new offices on Dover Street – the site of an Edwardian ladies’ club, where the offices had once been bedrooms – in London’s West End on a daily basis. The agency had already been joined by Mark Hamilton, Cyrus’ son-in-law, in 1956, and Hester Green had been hired to assist Cyrus as a secretary, rapidly becoming the agency’s second foreign rights specialist. When, a few months after Audrey’s passing, a young graduate by the name of Michael Thomas – who had previously worked for Shell in Brazil and found it not to his liking – answered a trade advertisement for “Young Man With A View, £10 per week”, A.M. Heath’s new generation was complete, and all was made official in 1960 when Mark Hamilton was nominated as the agency’s first sole managing director.
The new generation would continue the sterling work done by the old, at the same time expanding the agency’s repertoire and reach. Mark Hamilton’s keen interest in history saw the agency begin to take on more serious non-fiction, with military histories – especially of the Second World War, so recently concluded – becoming a mainstay of the agency for years to come. Meanwhile, fêted US authors such as Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud became clients via their arrangements with the big US agencies. So too did Eudora Welty, Anne Tyler, Jack Kerouac, Patricia Highsmith and Norman Mailer. Through our relationship with Agenzia Letteraria Internazionale, A.M. Heath represented some of the finest Italian writers, including the literary stars Primo Levi, Italo Calvino and Leonardo Sciascia. And, in 1961, the agency was proud to represent the UK rights for a debut novel by the American author Joseph Heller. Catch 22 had been sold on the basis of a partial manuscript to Secker & Warburg – but, on receiving the completed novel, long after the agreed delivery date, they had declined to publish it, and Michael Thomas was instead able to auction the rights, eventually contracting the novel with Jonathan Cape – to immediate, and long-lasting, success.
A.M. Heath had always prided itself on championing the serious literary writer, but commercial storytelling found its home here too. Winston Graham published his first Poldark novel just as the Second World War came to its end, following it with sequels across the 1950s – and, in 1964, fresh off the success of his blockbuster movie ‘Vertigo’, the director Alfred Hitchcock chose another Winston Graham novel, Marnie, to be his next project. Meanwhile, the agency began to represent the English author Eleanor Alice Burford via her American representatives McIntosh & Otis. Eleanor was already a successful novelist, but with a new pseudonym and a new genre, she was about to scale new heights. Writing as ‘Victoria Holt’, Eleanor became the ‘Queen of Romantic Suspense’, with a succession of bestselling novels on both sides of the Atlantic. Continuing to write as Victoria Holt, Phillipa Carr and Jean Plaidy, Eleanor was such a success that, by the time of her death in 1993, she was calculated to have sold as many as 75 million books.
Not that the commercial eye of the company was infallible – when Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels were hitting the bestseller lists across the 1950s and into the early 1960s, Cyrus, Mark and Michael memorably concluded that A.M. Heath could never represent a book like that: there was far too much sex in James Bond for an agency like A.M. Heath.
Meanwhile, as the borderlines of the Cold War hardened – with the Berlin Wall erected in 1961, effectively cutting off markets in the east of Europe – A.M. Heath found fresh avenues for stories to be told. Military history was already prevalent on the agency’s list. Espionage now became the new game. The looking glass wars of Europe’s Cold War would give rise to some of the 20th century’s most abiding fiction, but A.M. Heath’s specialty would be the real life stories drawn from the ‘conflict’. From the 1960s onwards, there was a hunger for the stories of dissidents, spies, scholars and others who had ‘crossed the Iron Curtain’ and escaped into the West, and Michael Thomas – who had become a fluent Russian speaker during his National Service – made hay organising and selling serials from these escapees to the UK’s newspapers, in particular the Daily Express.
With a new generation at the helm of A.M. Heath, the agency approached its half-centenary, cautiously optimistic about the future. In 1969, fifty years after Audrey Heath and Alice May Spinks left the Curtis Brown & Massie partnership to found something of their own, the company’s directors, staff and shareholders gathered in a Soho restaurant to toast the company’s continued success, with Cyrus raising a glass to its dearly departed founders. Soon afterwards, Cyrus himself would step down as chairman in favour of Mark Hamilton – and, soon, the company had decamped offices to become tenants of the publishing house Chatto & Windus, then on William IV Street off Trafalgar Square.
The 1970s saw the continuing growth of A.M. Heath’s commercial list, with the American suspense writer Mary Higgins Clark becoming a client via her primary US agent, but the Chatto & Windus years also saw a marked rise in A.M. Heath’s literary reputation. In 1975, Michael’s client Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was awarded the Booker Prize for her eleventh book, Heat and Dust. A client of the agency since the late 1950s, Ruth’s earlier novel, The Householder, had been adapted for the screen in 1963 by Merchant Ivory, with whom she went on to enjoy a lasting collaboration. Winning the Booker Prize was a matter of enormous pride for A.M. Heath, who had for so long championed literary writing, and the success was compounded the following year when David Storey, Mark’s client, was awarded the prize for his semi-autobiographical novel, Saville. Storey, who by this point was also a celebrated artist and playwright, had been with the agency since his debut novel, This Sporting Life, in 1960. Though This Sporting Life had become a movie in 1963 and David had variously been awarded the Somerset Maugham and Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prizes – and had even been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Pasmore, his novel of 1972 – the win in 1976 was the pinnacle for both author and agency, bookmarking an extraordinary career.
It was felt that the double Booker win of the mid-1970s was a turning-point in the history of A.M. Heath, the crowning achievement of the last fifty years. But, in many ways, it was a new beginning as well. For some time now, the elder statesmen of A.M. Heath had been winding down their careers. As Cyrus – who had been the agency’s stalwart for almost half a century – departed the firm, passing away shortly thereafter, Hester Green stepped into his shoes as the primary representative for the agency’s foreign rights. Mark Hamilton and Michael Thomas grew further into their leadership roles at the agency, and by the time the early 1980s came around, the agency’s success became manifest in their third Booker Prize Winner. Anita Brookner, the daughter of Jewish immigrants fleeing the Nazi regime, had become the first woman to hold the Slade Professorship of Fine Art at Cambridge University, but did not write her first novel, A Start in Life – published by Jonathan Cape in 1981 – until she was 53 years old. Though she followed it swiftly with two further novels, it was her fourth, Hotel du Lac – the story of a romance novelist who takes herself into self-imposed exile at a hotel on Lake Geneva – that won the attention of the Booker judges. In 1984, Hotel du Lac triumphed above future classics such as JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun and Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, to take home the prize.
But, of course, the year 1984 also figures heavily in the history of the agency for an altogether different reason…
Back in 1950, three months after the death of the celebrated British writer George Orwell, A.M. Heath had been appointed by the Orwell Estate to represent the deceased author’s rights going forward. At the time, Cyrus had valued the estate – for tax purposes – at the princely sum of £3,000, the equivalent of just under £100,000 in 2019. It was a healthy, if not earth-shattering, figure for an author who was best known, in his lifetime, for his journalism, and whose novels had sometimes been critically acclaimed, sometimes turned down by his option publishers – with T.S. Eliot famously declining to publish Animal Farm for Faber & Faber in 1944 – and sometimes been tortuous to write. The novel that would come to define him, 1984, had been written during a period of sustained ill-health and first published in 1949, shortly before he died.
Cyrus and Mark had represented the Orwell Estate throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, finding new readers in new territories and building upon the unparalleled success of Orwell’s final novel. 1984 itself was first adapted as a film in 1956, and had quickly become a cultural touchstone – with artists including David Bowie referencing it in their work – but it wasn’t until the century approached the novel’s eponymous year, with another film being released, that A.M. Heath’s lasting relationship with the Orwell Estate truly began to flourish. More than three decades after the author’s death, 1984 became one of the most talked-about novels of the decade. Finding its way onto school and University syllabuses, it heralded a new age in the publishing of George Orwell’s writing, with his back-list of novels and collections of journalism constantly finding new generations of readers. By 1994, an award – the Orwell Prize – would be set up to honour political writing of outstanding quality. New radio, theatre and operatic adaptions of 1984 followed. A film adaptation of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, starring Richard E. Grant and Helena Bonham Carter, was released in 1997. And in 2017, nearly seven decades after it was first published, 1984 returned to the bestseller lists when, following the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America, Orwell’s US publisher saw a dramatic spike in sales.
The 1980s were memorable not only for George Orwell and his prophetic novel; for A.M. Heath, they marked the beginning of the agency’s second great change. In 1982, after some years with Secker & Warburg, Bill Hamilton joined the agency, having grown up among the agency’s authors and becoming the third generation of his family – after Mark and Cyrus – to represent writers with the firm. Among the first authors he discovered was a young novelist by the name of Hilary Mantel, whose first novel Every Day Is Mother’s Day was published by Chatto & Windus. Hilary was a quintessential A.M. Heath author – defiantly different and out-of-step with the ‘brat pack’ of male novelists who were dominating the literary headlines of the time. Hilary would spend the next two decades publishing a succession of dazzling, ambitious novels – including her epic of the French revolution, A Place of Greater Safety – and a memoir, Giving Up the Ghost.
More change was to come. By 1986, Hester Green – who had championed the agency’s foreign rights cause for so long – was ready to step aside, and in her stead came the vibrant American agent Sara Fisher. Like Bill, Sara had grown up among the publishing fraternity – her father had emigrated from the United States to London to originate Sphere Books in the mid-1960s, and Sara had since worked for the June Hall Agency, where she represented UK rights on behalf of various US publishers and agencies, and latterly with the late, great agent Abner Stein. Introduced to AM Heath by the literary scout Anne-Louise Fisher, Sara would continue in the great tradition of foreign rights pioneered by Cyrus Brooks. As well as developing the overseas portfolios of A.M. Heath’s home-grown talent, Sara pushed the rights department into new territories too. By leaning on her fantastic US connections, she was able to bring some Hollywood glamour into the agency’s literary heartland, auctioning off autobiographies by Michael J. Fox, Donny Osmond and Shirley Temple on behalf of the US publisher Hyperion, part of the Disney group. Other projects were notable for other reasons – in the early 1990s, tasked with finding a publisher for a biography of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Sara could find no UK publisher willing to take a punt; twenty years later, Jobs would be the subject of a blockbuster Hollywood biopic, and biographies of him would grace the bestseller lists. And although Sara later found an eager UK home for the author and screenwriter George RR Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Game of Thrones, it would take several attempts at revitalising the series – and, eventually, a television adaptation by US network HBO – before it became the juggernaut of popular culture it is today.
By the end of the decade, Mark Hamilton was beginning to consider retirement and, in 1990, stepped down as the agency’s managing director. The century was moving inexorably toward its end, and A.M. Heath was in a phase of transition once again.
With Mark Hamilton and Hester Green both having retired, and a younger generation of agents now steering the agency forward, the 1990s marked a period of consolidation, modernisation and new growth. With Michael Thomas remaining as the agency’s sole elder statesman, the agency was now steered onward by a combination of Bill, Sara, and Sarah Molloy – a renowned editor, formerly with Harper Collins and Headline, who made the transition into agenting and signed up with A.M. Heath in 1992.
In 1994, the agency celebrated its 75th anniversary. Twenty-five years before, Cyrus Brooks had gathered the agency’s directors, staff and shareholders in a small Soho restaurant and toasted their continuing success. Now, Mark, Michael, Bill, Sara and Sarah hosted a considerably larger affair, gathering the agency’s authors in the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Hyde Park to celebrate three quarters of a century spent carving a corner in the heartland of Britain’s literary world. This time, it was down to Francis King – at the time, the agency’s eldest client – to deliver the speech. Francis published his first novel, To the Dark Tower, in 1946, with Patience Ross as his agent, and had remained with the agency ever since, watching as it grew and transformed along with the movements of the century.
At the agency, things turned in intriguing new directions. Among Bill’s projects were the works of the famous double agent Oleg Gordievsky, who first joined Soviet Russia’s KGB in 1963 and, ten years later, began working secretly for MI6. Gordievsky’s double life was close to being uncovered in 1985, but MI6 were able to spirit him safely to London; and it was at this point that he engaged A.M. Heath – who had already sold the stories of so many Russian defectors across the Cold War, most recently the works of Viktor Suvorov – to help tell his story. Gordievsky’s information about Soviet plans and about the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev gave Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan the confidence to negotiate the end of the Cold War, and across the early 1990s A.M. Heath were able to champion a string of revelatory bestsellers which peeled back the layers of the world’s most defining conflict: KGB: The Inside Story, co-written with the Cambridge professor Christopher Andrew was first published in 1990 and a full autobiography, Next Stop Execution, followed in 1995. The books attracted wild success overseas, and much ‘cloak and dagger’ ensued at the Frankfurt Book Fair when, attempting to get all of Oleg Gordievsky’s translation publishers together for a celebratory dinner, Sara Fisher had to employ tradecraft of her own: the publishers ferried to a secret dinner location by coach, Oleg himself conducting interviews in fake glasses, beard and hair.
Nor had A.M. Heath itself been ignored by the security services. Back in 1987, A.M. Heath Ltd had moved offices for the penultimate time, this time taking up residence on St Martin’s Lane just above Cambridge Circus. Twice, Bill picked up his telephone to make a call, only to find the line dead – and, on further inspection by a telephone engineer, discovered that listening devices had been placed in the telephone unit itself.
Bill, meanwhile, was also finding fertile ground with a new stable of writers who combined history and speculation to incredible commercial effect. Graham Hancock was already writing for the Economist about international aid when he changed approach with his 1992 work, The Sign and the Seal, which chronicled a search for the lost Ark of the Covenant, and his 1995 work, Fingerprints of the Gods – which, taking a step further into pseudoscience, contended that a lost prehistorical civilisation was the progenitor of all classical civilisations in the historical record. Hancock would go on to write yet more titles in this speculative area, some of them with a fellow historian, Robert Bauval, who was also represented by the agency. Hancock and Bauval may have been treated with scepticism by some critics, but readers did not agree: Fingerprints of the Gods alone would go on to be translated into 27 languages and sell over five million copies around the world.
Spies brought in from the cold, significant literary endeavour, and historians who theorised that mankind’s origins were altogether more inexplicable than the historical record allowed – so far, so serious. A brilliant note of unexpected humour came with Marina Lewycka’s first novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which rapidly became a cult million-copy bestseller, sold around the world, and has been followed by four further novels. But there is an altogether different side to A.M. Heath’s history – one that revels in excitement, childhood innocence, and the sheer joy of the imagination…
In the early 1930s, a young editor named Osyth Leeston had struck up a relationship with Cyrus Brooks, Patience Ross and Audrey Heath and agreed to work with A.M. Heath Ltd in a part-time capacity. Osyth was an editor at the prestigious literary journal Cornhill Magazine, which was first published in 1860 and had serialised novels such as Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell, Washington Square by Henry James, and Thomas Hardy’s Far from The Madding Crowd. Because of her distinguished relationship with Cornhill, Osyth only worked one day a week with A.M. Heath – but she didn’t let it stop her representing some of the agency’s most abiding clients. Responsible for the children’s list, one of her earliest successes was also among her most successful: Noel Streatfeild’s classic novel Ballet Shoes – the story of three foundling sisters set against the world of dance and stage – was first published in 1936, adapted twice for the BBC, and has been in print ever since. In the same year, Barbara Euphan Todd’s mischievous scarecrow Worzel Gummidge made his first appearance – and, in 1939, a paperback edition of the book would become the very first publication by the now-celebrated children’s publisher Puffin. Across the next twenty-five years, Worzel Gummidge would appear in ten books, going on to be adapted for both radio and television in series that defined the childhoods of successive generations.
In 1953, Joan Aiken – who came to A.M. Heath via her relationship with the Brandt Agency, and would go on to be awarded the MBE for services to children’s literature in 1999 – published her first collection, All You’ve Ever Wanted and Other Stories, drawing on short stories that had appeared in various formats across the preceding decade, beginning in 1941 with a story broadcast on BBC Radio’s ‘Children’s Hour’. Joan, who came from a family of writers, had always won over readers, but it was her 1962 novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and the series it spawned – taking in thirteen titles over four decades – that captured a permanent piece of the nation’s imagination. In 1989, it was adapted for the screen, starring a veritable Who’s-Who of talent from the British stage and screen. Joan would go on to become one of the agency’s longest-lasting clients, until, still writing, she passed away in 2004. In terms of her output, she was rivalled at the agency only by Helen Cresswell, who published her first children’s novel in 1960 and whose most popular series, Lizzie Dripping and The Baghtorpe Saga, would both be developed into successful children’s television series.
Other successes abounded. Judith Kerr’s picture book, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, was published in 1968 and has delighted generations of children since, never falling out of print. 1968 also saw the publication of Elizabeth Beresford’s first Wombles book – a series that would become beloved in both books and television. Osyth had an eye for a perfect children’s story, and she had the eye for a perfect children’s writer too. One of A.M. Heath’s most treasured properties, Nurse Matilda, was written by Christianna Brand – who began her career writing crime novels for adult readers. Taking Osyth’s advice, Christianna turned her talents towards children’s writing – and, taking as her starting point the stories her grandfather used to tell, the result was the spellbinding story of the despicable Brown children and the governess enlisted to help turn their wicked ways around. Across three novels, beginning in 1964 and concluding a decade later, Christianna captivated a generation.
By the time Osyth departed A.M. Heath in the late 1970s, the children’s list was a vital part of the agency’s ongoing business, and would go on to be inherited by Michael Thomas. Having met his wife Judy while she worked at the agency, Michael now had a young family of his own, and the children’s side of the agency seemed a natural addition to his own roster. As well as acting as custodian for the considerable client list Osyth had developed, Michael would bring yet more talented children’s writers to the agency – not least of whom was Malorie Blackman. But, by the mid-1990s, with Mark Hamilton having departed the agency and Michael himself looking toward his own retirement, a future general was needed to steer the children’s list onward. The agency found that general in Sarah Molloy.
Sarah Molloy had originally joined the agency as a specialist in women’s commercial fiction – and, indeed, one of her very first discoveries was Katie Fforde, now an agency stalwart with twenty-five bestselling novels published and yet more to come. But with Michael Thomas’ retirement in 1998, Sarah inherited a healthy children’s list, packed with classics, that soon became her primary focus. Sarah quickly brought new children’s writers to that stable. Authors like Joanna Nadin, John Dougherty and Odo Hirsch joined a list populated by stars from the earlier 20th century. Sarah revitalised the classics too, with Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda finding a new generation of readers when it was adapted into a blockbuster movie of 2005, starring Emma Thompson as the restyled Nanny McPhee, and followed in 2010 by a sequel, Nanny McPhee And the Big Bang.
The children’s list at A.M. Heath is nearly as old as the agency itself. Now replete with enduring classics from the 20th century, as well as authors we firmly believe are currently writing the 21st century’s own classics in the field, it remains a corner of the agency of which we are all enormously proud.
In 2004, after 17 years at our home on St Martin’s Lane, A.M. Heath Ltd looked to the future and committed to buying our first property. After three generations of moving from cramped, ramshackle offices to yet more cramped, ramshackle offices – always overflowing with books – Warwick Court, a little Holborn mews, would become the agency’s permanent home. The change in atmosphere from St Martin’s Lane was a sign of changing times for A.M. Heath. St Martin’s Lane had been a quintessential old world literary agency, beloved by visiting Americans for its higgledy-piggledy Englishness, complete with teetering towers of books, but Warwick Court – five storeys of pristine offices in the heart of London’s legal district (and only a stone’s throw from one of the properties that Thomas Cromwell, about to be thrust back into the public spotlight by the works of Hilary Mantel, had made his own 450 years before) was something altogether different. It was A.M. Heath’s welcome to the 21st century.
Soon after arriving in Warwick Court, our receptionist of many years, Betty Broomhead, announced her retirement and was succeeded by a young bookseller, Vickie Dillon, who remains with the agency to this day. With new offices and more space than the agency of old had ever dreamed of, there was scope to begin expanding the company once again. The agency had already been joined, in 1999, by Victoria Hobbs, who brought with her authors including Maggie O’Farrell – whose first novel After You’d Gone was a Betty Trask Winner in 2000, and whose fifth novel, The Hand that First Held Mine, would win the Costa Novel Award in 2010. Victoria also brought the critically-acclaimed British-Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie, whose A God in Every Stone and Burnt Shadows were both shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, before her 2018 novel Home Fire became its deserved winner, as well as being longlisted for the Booker Prize in the same year. A new custodian of the agency’s literary heritage, Victoria looked to broaden the agency’s representation in the mass-market too – and, when she plucked a young historical novelist, Conn Iggulden, out of the submissions pile, a new career was about to be made. After a succession of bestselling historical novels, chronicling classical Rome, the story of Genghis Khan, medieval Britain and much more besides, Conn became the only writer ever to hold the No. 1 position in both the Sunday Times’ hardback fiction and non-fiction lists, when The Dangerous Book for Boys became the surprise hit of 2007.
In 2005, the agency was further bolstered by Euan Thorneycroft, who had begun his career with Curtis Brown and whose list, originally focused on crime and thriller writers, has since grown to incorporate serious non-fiction, historical bestsellers and award-winning literary fiction – including the Welsh writer Cynan Jones, the winner of the 2015 Wales Book Of The Year for The Dig. Cynan is also a past winner of the The BBC National Short Story Award. In 2018 his author Steve Cavanagh won the CWA Gold Dagger Award for the best crime novel of the year with The Liar. In 2008, when Sara Fisher retired, the agency had the perfect replacement in Jennifer Custer, who began as Sara’s assistant in 2004 and would soon become our next foreign rights director.
Meanwhile, Bill continued the tradition of the agency representing writers from the Intelligence community, with the Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew – who had also written two volumes in conjunction with the exiled Soviet archivist Vasili Mitrokhin – being given virtually unrestricted access to MI5’s archives so that he could pen its first ever authorised history, The Defence of the Realm, published on the service’s own centenary in 2009. The US rights to these histories of the intelligence community were handled by one of the agency’s newest alliances, Inkwell Management, based in New York. The close relationship A.M. Heath would develop with Inkwell is one that lasts to this day.
Two of the new era’s greatest successes had been a long time in the making. In 2011, the American television network HBO began broadcasting their adaptation of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice And Fire series, now styled ‘Game of Thrones’ after its first volume. The UK rights, sold to Harper Collins by Sara Fisher on behalf of the American agent Ralph Vicinanza in the mid-1990s, had been steadily growing, after a couple of early false starts, but the year 2011-12 was a revelation, with the television series driving astronomical and unexpected sales. A deal done sixteen years previously was taking flight.
Meanwhile, twenty-five years after first joining the agency, Hilary Mantel became its fourth Booker prize winner, when Wolf Hall – her seminal novel chronicling the life of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII – became 2009’s winner. In 2012, its follow-up volume, Bring Up the Bodies, repeated the feat, making Hilary the first writer in history to win two Booker Prizes with successive novels – and the first to win with a direct sequel. To add to the acclaim, Bring Up the Bodies was also announced as the 2012 Costa Book of the Year. The novels were adapted for the stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company in their 2013 winter season, transferring to New York’s Winter Garden Theatre in 2015 – where they were nominated for 8 Tony Awards. In the same year, the novels were together adapted by the BBC, in a mini-series that starred Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII. A succession of brilliantly observed novels and a career full of critical acclaim was being crowned by a runaway commercial success. It is emblematic of the belief at the heart of everything A.M. Heath stands for: great writers and great writing.
The story of A.M. Heath Ltd begins with two unmarried women, one of them a widowed single mother, blazing their own way in an industry dominated by men, in an era when women over 30 had only recently been given the vote. It continues through wars hot and cold, through good times and bad, recessions and times of plenty. It has lasted one hundred years, and we believe will abide for more generations to come.
As we celebrate our centenary, the agency finds itself in another transitional moment. In the last years we have said goodbye to our foreign rights champion Jennifer Custer, and welcomed aboard not only our new rights director, Alexandra McNicoll, but a flotilla of new literary agents to steer the good ship onward. In the wake of Sarah Molloy’s retirement, Julia Churchill has come on board to look after and build the children’s list, bringing with her a wonderful stable of clients of her own. Oli Munson has arrived to build a list centred on crime and thrillers, often with a speculative bent; Rebecca Ritchie has brought a keen eye for commercial women’s and book club fiction back to the agency; and Zoë King has joined to expand the agency into areas of lifestyle, wellness, health and popular psychology. These new agents represent the biggest expansion in A.M. Heath’s hundred-year history.
Times change. So do readers. A.M. Heath’s earliest notable success, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, may have fallen foul of government censors in 1928, but by 1974 it was being read to the nation on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Book at Bedtime’. Eastern Europe and Russia were once the nations from which stories of political dissidents and spies might be sold as serials to the Daily Express – but they are now burgeoning markets of their own. There is little denying that the last decade has been one of unparalleled change inside the publishing industry. With the rising power of online retailer Amazon, the sad demise of a number of high-street booksellers and the birth of the ebook as a new front in the publishing wars, the world we operate in today looks very different to the world in which Audrey Heath, Patience Ross, Cyrus Brooks, Mark Hamilton, Michael Thomas and Osyth Leeston operated. Yet at its core, the business is the same. It is the business of championing authors. It is the business of championing ideas. It is this endless, beautiful business of the imagination. Great stories will always abide, and classics from the A.M. Heath vault are continually finding new lives as the publishing world changes around them: Winston Graham’s Poldark is enjoying fresh life as a new BBC adaptation, and both Rogue Male and Marnie are back in active development.
None of us know what turns the publishing industry might take next – but, in an age when many small and mid-sized agencies are being incorporated into bigger, more corporate firms, A.M. Heath is proud to remain truly independent, committed to fighting for our writers’ causes for the next hundred years.