Toby Mundy is the Founding Director of TMA and Executive Director of
the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction.
After nearly 15 years as the head of Atlantic
Books, I had decided by mid-2014 that it was
time to do something else, writes Toby Mundy.
Allen and Unwin had recently taken over
Atlantic, which I believed represented the
best possible result for the writers and for my
colleagues. But a lot of the fun had gone from
my day job and I missed working creatively
with writers, which I had done for much of the
previous 25 years. A few weeks before I resigned,
I met Ed Victor at the Delaunay restaurant in
the Aldwych and over their Viennese breakfast
(highly recommended), I found myself thinking out loud about life
after independent publishing. He asked me what I liked best about
my job, to which I said, “working with writers and making deals”.
And then, without missing a beat, he made me an offer I couldn’t
refuse: I should, he said, start a new agency, but house it within
Bedford Square Literary Management, the formidable back office
service company that he and his MD Hitesh Shah had built.
It was irresistible: the chance to build a new business,
working closely with a brilliant and generous industry
legend and his superb colleagues. But what kind of agency?
After all, trade publishing is not getting any easier.
Broader management service
Obviously I would represent authors, but these are strange
days and for many in the middle of the dark wood, the way
ahead is not clear. Authors of course need income from book
advances. But I quickly found that many also want broader
management services: career planning and coaching, creative
partnership, and help with speaking. They want new networks
and new conversations. I knew that to prosper, my agency,
TMA, would need to add value with everything it does. And I
also knew that these were things with which I could help.
Not knowing any better, I revisited a plan I had followed when I
started Atlantic Books in 2000–first, look everywhere for writers.
I mean everywhere. In book publishing, new business development
often just means getting out from behind your desk and meeting
new people (something I had pretty much stopped doing in my
last year of my old job). Now I am constantly on the move, and
represent clients located in countries as disparate as Bulgaria,
Nigeria and Spain, as well as the UK and the United States.
Second, I have long been convinced that the two poles around
which our business orbits are the Original and the Proven. So
I would try to build a list of distinguished non-fiction writers,
who have profile and a place to stand, and original (often first)
novelists. As I write this, six months after starting out, I have
somehow come to represent around 40 marvellous writers,
some quite grand, some unknown, some established and others
just starting out. They are as exciting, creative, diverse and
dynamic a group as one could possibly imagine.
I also wanted TMA to participate in the greatest change
happening in our industry, one that, in my view, will eventually
transform everything. I am referring to the
dramatic expansion of what, or who, can
legitimately call themselves a “publisher”.
The most obvious group of newly minted
publishers is “self-published” authors. One of
the things I did in the summer before I started
TMA was to try and educate myself about
what is happening in the self-publishing
space. And I was shocked and embarrassed
by my (then) lack of understanding. It wasn’t
just that there were incredibly powerful tools available to
independent authors, of which I had hitherto been completely
unaware; it was the fact that there are thousands of successful
self-published authors who are remarkable entrepreneurs and
who are doing very well for themselves. (Indeed, when CEOs
wonder out loud where the entrepreneurs are in our industry,
the answer is probably to be found at independent author
conferences, among the people who have real skin in the game).
After Ed Victor, Orna Ross, the remarkable bestselling novelist
and founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), has
had the most influence on my commercial re-education in the last
half year. ALLi is a professional association for thousands of
successful writers who publish their own work. I work with
Ed Victor Limited to provide translation, paperback and other
subsidiary rights services to qualifying ALLi members. I’d like
to think I have helped some of those writers with what I have
learned. But honestly, I think I am the one who has learnt most.
I have come to share with many ALLi members an intense
dislike of that phrase “self-published”. It sounds a bit too much
like “selfie-publishing”, with its echoes of vanity publishing. Many
of these writers prefer “independent authors”, though I think even
this sells them short. I believe that they are “micro-publishers”, and
with super low overheads, different business models and global
digital distribution, they are already a force to be reckoned with.
The other consequence of the expanded definition of
“publishing” is that brands can now easily enter the publishing
space, either for themselves with their own content or via
licensing deals with traditional publishers. I wanted TMA to
operate in this space because it is an area in which it seemed
that I could put to good use whatever creative and commercial
insights I have gained over the years. It is exciting that several
very well-known brands have now asked TMA to work with
them, often in ways that combine brand development and
bespoke content creation, with representation and licensing.
When people ask what TMA does, I have decided to say
that it is a creative agency and management company,
which represents authors and speakers, and helps brands
publish. I don’t know what the future holds, but this new
life suits me very well indeed. ■