BOOK PEOPLE : A new series on literary professionals whose names rarely appear on a title page
David Morton describes the work of Gina Pollinger
Gina Pollinger has been a literary agent for over 25 years, and has gained a reputation as tough yet tactful, conscientious yet charming, but above all as a committed champion of children’s books. Her list contains many of the best-loved and most respected authors and illustrators for children - including Peter Collington, Berlie Doherty, Anne Fine, Penelope Lively, Jan Mark, Geraldine McCaughrean, Chris Powling, Martin Waddell and Jacqueline Wilson. Yet she still makes time to read every unsolicited manuscript she receives because, as she says, ‘One of them might just have that je ne sais quoi...’
After coming down from Oxford with a degree in English, Gina joined Chatto & Windus as a junior editor, spending two years there before leaving for New York to work at Simon & Schuster under the legendary Bob Gottleib. Her stay there was the ‘pivotal publishing experience’ of her editorial career and it was with Gottleib that she learnt the skills which were to help her become one of the foremost agents in publishing today.
It wasn’t, however, until several years later that her career as an agent began. Her husband, Murray Pollinger, resigned from his father’s long-established agency, Laurence Pollinger Ltd, to set up on his own, taking three of his father’s most illustrious clients with him - Roald Dahl, Rosemary Sutcliff and Clive King. As a result, this new agency gained a reputation for children’s books and soon the manuscripts began to arrive. Gina, then mother to their two small children, offered to help out ‘sorting the wheat from the chaff’, and the rest, as they say, is history. She clearly remembers the first unsolicited children’s writer they took on - Penelope Lively - and still has a copy of her report about the script, Astercote, which commented ‘Mrs Lively certainly lives up to her name...’
These days it’s a big job being an agent. First and foremost, there are one’s authors - and much of Gina’s day is spent talking to them - nurturing, reassuring, encouraging them to write to the best of their abilities. Then there are the editors - and Gina firmly believes she can only give the best service to her authors if she has a good relationship with editors: ‘It’s a two-way thing between editor and agent and it’s essential I keep abreast of the new developments within the company, so that when I declare I’ve found something which is right up an editor’s particular street, he or she knows I’m on to something worth immediate attention.’ Often an editor with an idea for a particular book will come to Gina to see if she has anyone to write it. This often works with series fiction and Gina is very keen to offer this opportunity to her ‘up and comings’ - it’s a great chance to develop writing skills, increasing the likelihood of writing profitably and professionally for a living. ‘I genuinely do cherish my up and comings as much as I do my established authors,’ she says, confirming her belief that part of an agent’s job is to talent spot and get that talent up and away - ‘and I love seeing people develop; when they’re still recognisably the same but are different and now irresistibly appealing.’
Not least, for an agent, there are the rights to take care of - foreign and US, serial, drama and TV, broadcasting and movie, audio, large print, animation, merchandising, and now electronic rights. It’s a growing list and increasingly complex and although Gina does have staff to help with it all she nevertheless takes a pride in doing plenty of the work herself, whether at book fairs or on one of her many regular trips to the US and foreign publishing houses.
With the publication of Something Rich and Strange (Kingfisher, 1 85697 387 5, £12.99), Gina has crossed a boundary. Exasperated by comments condemning Shakespeare as marginal to modern life, Gina set about compiling an anthology which would make the great Bard’s verse accessible to young people and show that ‘he still reaches out to us today’. It’s a beautifully produced thematic ‘orchestration’ of Shakespeare’s verse, with splendid illustrations by Emma Chichester Clark, and is obviously the fruit of years of study and a great, great passion. The desire to be an author, however, seems not too pressing - she’s quick to point out that the only words not Shakespeare’s own are those in her introduction: ‘the author is Shakespeare, not Gina Pollinger’.
It seems a busy life being Gina Pollinger, but one which she obviously finds hugely rewarding, and there’s delight in her voice as she talks about her job - a role she sees as a ‘midwife who has the greatest possible respect for the mother and the child’. She positively glows with pride at the mention of one of her authors - whether they be amongst her established, award-winners or whether it’s her latest find from the unsolicited pile. ‘I love what I do and I love all their babies and I love the feeling that I am instrumental, albeit a hidden and unrecognised instrument, in bringing to children whose lives are possibly very drab, something wonderful and exciting which may make their world a much more agreeable place.’
David Morton was until recently Marketing Manager for children’s publishing at Random House. Now he’s a freelance journalist and writer specialising in children’s books.