History is something Curtis Brown Ltd. has been reveling in of late, as the agency turns 100 this year. And, while the birthday is an occasion to celebrate the past—late last month, Curtis Brown Ltd. held a soiree at the Central Park Boathouse—it’s also a moment to look at the future. For the principals at the agency, this means focusing on exploiting the company’s famously strong backlist, while fighting to ensure that its frontlist clients get the best terms possible.
The history of Curtis Brown Ltd., which has an office in downtown New York City, is intertwined with that of Curtis Brown, the London-based agency from which it was spun off. Explaining the connection between the two, Curtis Brown Ltd. president Peter Ginsberg and CEO Timothy Knowlton said that Curtis Brown New York was formed in 1914 as a branch of the London agency, so that founding partner Curtis Brown could avoid making cross-Atlantic trips during World War I. In the 1930s, Curtis Brown New York became an independent agency, but continued to work closely with its namesake in Europe. Years later, a falling out led to a parting of ways, and now the agencies are entirely separate. “As I see it,” Knowlton said, “over the long course of our history we’ve worked with a number of professionally well-regarded agencies. Curtis Brown happens to be one of them, and it also just so happens that we have the same name in our exclusive territories.”
CB’s age is evident in its backlist. Its powerhouse lineup includes some of the strongest-selling authors of all time. CB oversees the estates of, among many others, John Knowles (whose 1959 novel A Separate Peace has long been a staple of American high school reading lists), Betty Friedan, W.H. Auden, Daphne du Maurier, and Clement Hurd (illustrator of the perennially popular Goodnight Moon). S.E. Hinton, one of the early American authors to achieve bestseller status writing young adult fiction, is also a client; Hinton’s 1967 novel The Outsiders is another title that has long been popular among high school English teachers.
The backlist business, as both Knowlton and Ginsberg acknowledged, is one of the few areas in publishing where there is more opportunity today than there was five years ago. “It’s much easier to keep a title in print, given the new technology,” Knowlton observed. “There’s e-book, there’s POD... Not only [is it easier to keep titles in print], it’s also easier to put out-of-print books back into print.”
While Knowlton and Ginsberg said their agency is thrilled to be able to make its authors’ works available, they are always vigilant about two points: that the integrity of the work is maintained, and that, as Ginsberg put it, “the author’s revenue stream from the content... is reasonable and protected.”
When it comes to the agency’s frontlist business, the issue of revenue streams is even more pressing—and the big sticking point, Knowlton and Ginsberg said, remains the digital royalty rate. While Knowlton noted that the agency has seen its fair share of exceptions to the current standard—i.e., a 25% share of net revenue earned on digital editions of titles, which is the royalty offered by the Big Five to most authors—there is a strong desire to change the current way of doing business. Knowlton added that because there are smaller publishers offering up to 50% royalties on net revenues for e-books, there are ever-stronger incentives to do business with players outside the Big Five. “We’re stuck with 25% for new authors, and we do like doing business with the Big Five, and we have to accept their current structure and current royalty policy,” Knowlton said, but “that doesn’t mean we’re not going to keep trying to change it.”
Many of the other agents at CB said, while discussing the current difficulties in the marketplace and what it means to work at an outfit with so much history, that the latter makes the former a bit easier.
Elizabeth Harding, a v-p at the agency who focuses on children’s literature (juvenile, middle grade, and YA), said: “At an agency this size, with this sort of depth and history, the backlist is completely different [from those of other agencies]. It’s a viable, living, breathing thing now.... It’s been fun to be creative about breathing new life into authors and projects that have been, perhaps, forgotten.”
Other agents said it’s always helpful to have a well-known name behind you—one that editors immediately recognize. Katherine Fausset, an agent who represents adult fiction and nonfiction, said she misses the days when CB, whose logo features white letters set against an orange backdrop, sent its manuscripts in orange boxes. “Editors often said, when I started here years ago, ‘Oh, an orange box is coming, can’t wait.’ But now, with electronic submissions... Well, I do miss that.”
Though the orange boxes are a thing of the past, agent Ginger Clark, who represents adult and YA/middle-grade authors, said CB conjures other thoughts in the minds of editors: “We have an excellent boilerplate, and we’re very tough negotiators.”
Even with the advantage of a long-established name behind them, the CB agents who spoke to PW readily admitted that the marketplace is tougher than ever. Mitchell Waters, who represents literary and commercial fiction and nonfiction, said he thinks it’s not necessarily harder to sell a debut today than it was in the past, but it is harder to sustain an author’s career. He said the deals he worries about are for the author’s “second, third, and fourth” books.
For Fausset, this issue is something that drew her to CB. “I think the focus at Curtis Brown is on the long view and the big picture. Just by walking down our halls you see that.... You can see 100 years’ worth of books, and you know that a large percentage of those authors did not make it on the first try.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Ginger Clark as a v-p at Curtis Brown; she is a literary agent at CB.