In Conversation with Carol Heaton

Carol Heaton has been involved with the agency continually since 1968, which was then Elaine Greene Ltd. From 1971 to 1976 she handled translation rights for the agency. When founder Elaine Greene died in 1995, Carol took over the representation of most of Elaine’s clients. The clients Carol now represent include Michael Frayn, the Estate of P.D. James, Jackie Wullschläger and Helen Craig. Carol gained her experience in publishing while working at Penguin as their Rights Director for twelve years from 1976 to 1988, where the sale of American rights was her speciality. During this period she was a consultant to Elaine Greene Ltd, which became Greene & Heaton Ltd in 1993. When she began working full-time at the agency in 1988, she started developing a list of writers working in areas of interest to her: biography, history, current affairs, travel, gardening, health – and, of course, fiction. We asked Carol about her longstanding career as literary agent, the agency’s history, as well as her recommended reading.
When did you start at Greene & Heaton? Tell us a bit about the agency before you joined.
I started at G&H – then Elaine Greene Ltd – in March 1968, the month I decided to get married. I remember phoning Elaine to tell her and ask was this okay with her. She – always a bit ahead of her time – said of course, as long as I intended to continue working. At that point there was only Elaine and me; she and I were on the top floor of shared premises in a wonderfully Dickensian building in Great Russell Street opposite the museum; we also shared an accountant and a foreign rights agent with Peter Janson Smith who had sponsored Elaine when she started.
How was it different from now?
Fifty years is a very long time and we’ve inevitably seen a lot of changes. We’ve grown a great deal from Elaine being a sole agent to now when we have several agents, including a full-time foreign rights agent. Things were unimaginably different. Back then paper was king: loads of physical manuscripts coming in all the time; letters and memos were the main means of communication. We used to send an envelope of memos each week to our American co-agents to save on postage. Submissions on behalf of American agents we represented were made with physical, finished books. In an emergency we would “borrow” other people’s telex machines in the seventies. In the late eighties we invested in a fax machine – a huge step forward. At that time too, in the late 80s, I got my first desktop computer and very gradually we moved our accounts to a computerised system against great resistance from our then bookkeeper. For many years I was paid in cash each week in a nasty brown envelope with holes in. Authors were paid by cheque. Elaine loved the telephone and used it a lot whereas nowadays we don’t use it nearly so much. Offices are quieter now whereas back then the phones were ringing all day long and there was a great clatter of manual typewriters.
What was Elaine like?
Oh she was wonderful and I loved her dearly. She was American and very proud of having worked at the renowned American imprint, Knopf, before she came to the UK. She was a lively, fun-loving person, fiercely intelligent, left-leaning (she was an investor in Ink, the radical magazine founded by Ed Victor and others in the early seventies) and a great reader. She loved crime writing so representing PD James was natural for her. Ahead of her time, she wore trousers to work and used to call restaurants beforehand to make sure it was alright for her to wear them to a lunch meeting – imagine a time when it was not ok for women to wear trousers outside the home!
What did you do prior to being an agent? Why did you decide to be an agent?
I was very young when I started as Elaine’s assistant and I had little office experience – indeed experience of any kind: short term jobs here and there including a 6-month stint in the export sales department of OUP, and a summer working with a holiday company in Italy which was fun! I never really made a formal decision to be an agent. I grew up in a house full of books so reading was intrinsic to me from an early age. My father was a writer and his publisher, Faber & Faber, introduced me to Elaine who was looking for a new assistant; I was always clear I wanted to work with books and writers.
How did your background in translation rights help you in your career?
Immeasurably: going to the Frankfurt Book Fair, getting to know and making friends in the international world of publishing and books, developing negotiation skills, learning how to pitch, when and what to pitch and not, I could go on. Back then Frankfurt was when big books were discovered and sold around the world; London hardly existed as a Fair whereas now it’s a key moment in the annual publishing calendar. Two books stick in my mind as being the ones I had most fun with in translation: Supership by Noel Mostert about supertankers, and Jaws by Peter Benchley.
How did you feel when you did your first big deal?
Thrilled and excited! And a teeny bit nervous: would it ever happen again? (it did!)
What is one of the highlights of your career?
My first trip to New York City was one of the most exciting moments of my career.
What is the most satisfying part of being an agent?
I think this must be discovering a new writer, identifying their talents, finding them a good home, seeing them develop and then take off. And the other side of this coin: nurturing an established talent, making sure they are getting the best possible exposure to the market and are completely happy with their publisher. And all things in between. Nurture talent is our watch word; being there to support our clients must be our primary purpose in life.
Antony and Judith have grown up at the agency with your mentorship, how has it been to watch their career progression?
They have been the most wonderful colleagues throughout our long years together; watching them develop their careers has been hugely exciting and satisfying for me. Mentorship is key in our industry. Elaine mentored me in so many ways and her values continue through me, and on through Antony and Judith, to our younger colleagues today.
How do you think the agency has changed over time? What are your hopes for the future of the agency?
Inevitably we have moved with the times. Our lists have expanded exponentially and we have taken the agency into new areas of media which we would not have dreamed of back in the 60s. I hope the agency will continue to expand in this way, developing new agents, taking on new clients, moving into new areas of the media that open up, while maintaining our core devotion to books and their writers. And using new technology as it develops: we’ve learned such a lot in recent weeks about video-conferencing. I can’t imagine how Elaine would react to such an idea!
What are you reading at the moment, and what are your recommendations for lockdown reading?
Now that Antony and Judith are running the business, while I continue to handle my own clients, I have more time to read for pleasure, though I still read a lot of our own new books and submissions. I am enjoying keeping up with things, new and old. My lockdown reading has been eclectic: among others, and avidly reading the daily papers: Jenny Offill’s WEATHER, shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker Prize Winning GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER, John Le Carré’s latest, AGENT RUNNING IN THE FIELD, and now Hilary Mantel’s latest masterpiece THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT and Anne Enright’s ACTRESS. And I have a long reading list and am binge watching CALL MY AGENT, and NORMAL PEOPLE!