My guest this month is Carole Blake, a lady whose amazing career has taken her from working as a secretary in a packaging company to forming the incredibly successful London literary agency, Blake Friedmann. This journey involved becoming the first Rights Manager for Michael Joseph, then Marketing Director at Sphere, before starting up her own agency in 1977. Five years later she merged with Julian Friedmann’s Agency.
Throughout this time Carole has worked tirelessly to develop the careers of her authors and yet still found time to serve on many boards and institutions to contribute to the industry she loves so much. In 2013 Carole was the recipient of the Pandora Award for her ‘significant and sustained contribution to the publishing industry’.
Did your childhood inspire and nurture your love of books?
My childhood home didn’t have many books, but I was always focussed on them & asked for them as presents. I can remember my first ever rag-books (made of a linen-like material) that I used to ‘read’ in the bath before I could actually read. I loved turning the pages and pretending. Once I could read, my early favourites were the Rupert books, which I still have, with my parents’ messages & dates written inside. When I was 8 I asked for a bookcase for my Christmas present. I got it (& only relinquished it when I moved house 8 years ago). I then set out to catalogue and categorise all the books I owned. I worked out a complicated system of letters and numbers and wrote them inside each book, then listed them all against their titles and authors. Very proud of it. Some years later when I discovered the Dewey System I was crushed. I had thought I was being entirely original!
Was it challenging for a woman in your early career to progress in the industry as you did?
I don’t remember it as difficult. I answered an advert in the Evening Standard, went for an interview & got the job. I commuted from Mitcham in Surrey to Marble Arch, & found myself – a working class girl, in a cotton dress and a white cardigan – working as a secretary to a team of university-educated art experts working on a multi-volume art encyclopedia. I kept a low profile, soaked up information like a sponge (including which pieces of cutlery to use when we went out to restaurants) and made friends there (50+ years ago) that I am still in touch with. It was literally a life-changing experience.
Who inspired you the most to keep moving forward? Are you naturally self-motivated to achieve?
The lovely people I worked with at Rainbirds, in my first job, were extremely encouraging. Working there for 8 years kick-started my life-long love of art. It introduced me to the classics (I compiled a company-wide order of Penguin paperbacks every few months. We could get a discount if we ordered 30 or more. Soon I stopped asking anyone else to mark up the Penguin stocklists, because I was ordering 30 at a time myself. I read my way through all the Russian and French novelists, and I remember crying on the no 16 bus as it went round Marble Arch because I finished Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and found it unbearably sad. How nerdish is that for a teenager in the swinging 60s?
But later when I was marketing director of Sphere, Edmund Fisher fired me, quite rightly. I was running the marketing, publicity, rights and contracts departments and wasn’t juggling them very well. We were having a row – we had a very volatile relationship over the three companies and 12 years that I worked with him – and I was in the middle of resigning. When I realised he was firing me I withdrew my resignation and sued for wrongful dismissal. I knew he hadn’t followed all the right procedures (indeed he hadn’t followed any procedures at all!) and as I was a director, I was employed by Sphere’s then owners, Thomson Newspapers, so he didn’t actually have the right to fire me at all. I won, they settled out of court, and I discovered I had a list of authors who wanted to be represented by me if I started an agency. So I did. The fact that Edmund fired me was the best thing ever to happen to me. I would never have had the courage to ask someone to stop paying me if he hadn’t. No one in my family had ever started a company. If I hadn’t been out of work for 6 months, dealing with lawyers it would never have occurred to me to do so.
You are also encouraging new blood into the publishing industry through your associations with UCLA postgraduate publishing course. Is this something you feel passionate about as much as discovering new writing talent?
Given my start in the industry, remembering how kind people were, and aware that it’s a much more difficult area to get work in now I think the least I can do is to encourage and help others into a business that has given me such a wonderfully satisfying lifestyle. I’ve been associated with other postgraduate publishing courses as well, and am always happy to talk to people wanting to get into the book world.
I am the only person in my company who doesn’t have a degree; many of my staff have several. I didn’t have to go through the purgatory of unpaid internships, which I think are morally indefensible: we pay our interns properly.
Whenever I can I try to introduce people to others in the industry who can be of use to them. We have actually employed more than a dozen of our interns over the years – it’s so much more successful than a 40 minute interview. We also have an annual get-together of all our past staff, past interns. It’s officially known as networking but we all know it’s a great gossip-fest. So great to see where people have moved on to. You might have heard of the singer Dido? She was my assistant for 4 years and was an ace at selling serial rights!
Her parents were both publishers. I work with her mother at Rainbirds in the 60s, sold books to her father when he was running Sidgwick decades later. He and I used to lunch together and regarded ourselves as in-laws while she was working for me. When she resigned ‘to spend more time on her music’ I gave her a very motherly speech. ‘Can’t guarantee to keep your job open Dido.’ I don’t think she’s ever wanted to come back to publishing again …
I do quite a lot of public speaking – at literary festivals, conferences (I’m an honorary vice-president of the RNA, a member of the HNS) and I teach a course on how to sell rights. I’ve been a board member of The Book Trade Charity, and its Chairman, and President over many years and am now a Patron.
Your guide ‘From Pitch to Publication’ is widely used throughout the publishing industry. How much of a challenge has it been to update it?
An extreme challenge, as you can tell from the fact that I’ve not managed to deliver it yet. It took Boxtree (later to become an imprint of Macmillan) several years to persuade me to agree to write it in the first place. And then I renegotiated the delivery date several times, in order not to be in breach of contract (how embarrassing would that have been for a literary agent?). Same has happened with the contracted update/new edition. My agency is SO much bigger & busier than it was when I delivered the original manuscript – 20 years ago! – and so much has changed. I now know what I want to write, what I need to update, what I need to add … but time is the enemy. My editor at Macmillan (a friend) is understanding … up to a point. I now so want to have this new manuscript behind me. There are so very many more ways to promote a book now (social media?!) and I am now writing it but in such small spaces of time.
You represent many of my favourite authors, but two especially. Could you share with us what it was that you loved so much about ‘Lady of Hay’ and the amazing Barbara Erskine?
Likewise, when Elizabeth Chadwick’s first manuscript arrived on your desk did you instantly realise that you had found gold?
Two authors very close to my heart: both are good friends.
Barbara Erskine: I was already representing her short stories. She wrote many, and magazine editors around the world would line up for them. We had talked about an unusual novel she was thinking about writing. Two time periods, linked. We talked about it for a long time: years. I remember saying at the outset that it would be vital that every time, at the end of each chapter, the reader was required to move from present to past, from past to present, it must be a wrench. Each time period must be equally compelling, and hard to leave or the novel would be broken backed. Oh my … did she deliver. But although publishers and editors always ask for something new, a fresh voice – they always actually want something that is recognisable. I submitted the partial manuscript for 4 years. ‘I don’t know if it’s a contemporary novel, or a historical?’ Me: it’s both. ‘I don’t know if it’s a love story or a mystery?’ Me: it’s both. Every editor who arrived in a new job found the manuscript on their desk. When Maggie Pringle arrived at Michael Joseph in 1983, she read it, loved it, & recognised it as something fresh and new and exciting, and she was allowed to buy it even though it had been rejected twice by other Michael Joseph editors over the years. They auctioned paperback rights back then and it set a record for the highest paperback advance for a British first novel. This summer it celebrated 30 years continuously in print – quite something for a commercial novel. And it’s in print in many other languages too. In 2017 it will be celebrated for its 30th anniversary in German.
Barbara and I are friends. We’ve worked together for so long: we have even been on holiday together. That Nile cruise will never be forgotten. The only holiday that I’ve ever got a holiday-tie-in best-seller novel from – ‘Whispers in the Sand’! Barbara always stays with me at home when she’s in London overnight.
Elizabeth Chadwick: the early chapters of ‘The Wild Hunt’ arrived in the late 80s in a brown envelope – back in the days when submissions were made on paper, via snailmail. And back in the days when I opened my own mail every morning at my desk. I read it as soon as I opened the envelope and knew there was something very special in my hand. A few weeks later I had sold it, via auction, to hardback and paperback publishers (back in the days before publishers always published in both formats themselves.)
‘The Wild Hunt’ won a Betty Trask award, and Prince Charles was the person giving out the prizes for The Society of Authors that year. That was quite a memorable evening!
As with Barbara, this led to publishing success and a long and on-going friendship. Elizabeth stays with me when she’s in London too, and we often talk into the small hours.
I think it is unfair to ask you which are your favourite books or authors, but of all the novels you have read are there a few characters that really stayed with you? If so, why?
There’s no way I could choose between novels by my clients – I represent them all because they are so original, and so special. It would be like asking a mother to choose between her children! Not that I think of my best-selling authors are children for one moment. But the novels – apart from those written by my clients – that always stay with me are Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (I finished it on a no 16 bus going round Marble Arch roundabout in the late 60s, crying my eyes out), and Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. A haunting work.
You have travelled extensively in your work, but where do you enjoy going to relax and explore?
Italy, always Italy. I go for art, music, food (and Negronis!), shopping. Venice, in particular if I had to pin it down more narrowly. I was lucky enough to take a sabbatical earlier this year and I spent 5 weeks in Italy: Florence, Siena, Padua, Mantua, Venice. Absolutely heaven.
Is it your love of detail that first led you to becoming a collector of dolls’ houses and miniatures (OOAK)? Where did this begin? How is the collection growing?
I’ve always loved houses, furniture, interior decoration. My home is full now so miniatures are the way I buy furniture. I dare not add up the number of miniatures I own … they are stored in many boxes, and I’ve had to forbid myself to buy more until I’ve finished building the 5 floor Regency house which will be taller than me. And I’m forbidden to do any more work on that until I’ve delivered my next book. In addition to that house, I have a Georgian hand made one that I bought already finished. That is fully furnished. I also own an antiquarian bookshop which I made from a kit. Every book is real; they can be opened and read (with a magnifying glass). Most of them are miniature copies of real antique illustrated books that I buy from a particular maker whose work I really admire. I have more than 1000. And I have two more kits to build – they are going to become a row of shops. And then there is the greenhouse, and a conservatory, both full of flowers. My favourite collection though is mouth-blown cranberry glass. Five (miniature) cabinets full so far. The most satisfying thing I achieved myself, was laying a floor of terracotta tiles. Real tiles, 1:12 scale. Laying the tiles was easy: the grouting was murder, the air blue!
What other interests do you enjoy away from the world of publishing?
Early music – I still buy cds because I enjoy the booklets. I’ve got about 5000, all stored on a hard drive and easy to find. But I also like Meat Loaf (that’s Elizabeth Chadwick’s fault!). Art – I always make time to go to exhibitions. I find cooking very therapeutic, and always have freezers-full of home cooked food. I enjoy a variety of crafts – I make greetings cards, keep scrapbooks, make jewellery (I have 1000s of beads, and like to buy them on my travels), and I love taking photographs (check out my 56 Pinterest boards, and my Instagram posts!). I took 8000 photographs during the 5 weeks in Italy. And of course reading. I read a lot of non-fiction for relaxation as a change from the fiction that I work with. I love history, memoir, African wildlife (I’ve been to Africa on safari many times). And I collect books about the publishing industry. I’ve recently taken up knitting and crochet again. But there’s not a lot of time to fit these in around work!
You have achieved a great deal in your career, but what is next for Carole Blake?
I’ve got to make time to finish the new book. Then I can get back to (miniature) house building …
Thank you for the fascinating insight into your career and for sharing some personal photographs of your lovely miniature worlds!