As global appetite for books and their screen adaptations boom in COVID times, WME Books is strengthening its international rights unit.
The agency’s books department has appointed New York-based Laura Bonner (pictured, left) and Matilda Forbes Watson (right) as partners, with the latter also named head of the U.K. books office out of London. Together with longtime executive Tracy Fisher (center), who is based in New York, the trio comprise the books division’s international rights unit, which works closely with a separate literary packaging arm that adapts books for TV and film.
Closing more than 1,000 international publishing deals in 2021 alone out of both New York and London, the division represents such titles as Quentin Tarantino’s debut book “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” a 2021 novelization of his titular film that has sold into 32 territories, and Laura Dave’s “The Last Thing He Told Me,” which has secured 33 publishing deals and a TV adaptation for Apple.
Other clients include authors Jhumpa Lahiri, whose book “The Namesake” was made into a feature film, as well as Meg Wolitzer, Mohsin Hamid, Curtis Sittenfeld, Glennon Doyle, Emma Straub, Dave Grohl, Ellie Goulding and Brené Brown.
Going forward, the international rights unit — which has, to date, largely focused on bringing work by English-language authors overseas — aspires to become more global in its outlook by expanding its roster of writers around the world.
“We want to hear from all parts of the globe,” Bonner tells Variety. “We feel passionately that English-language writers aren’t the only ones telling important stories or having big ideas, so we’re extremely interested in identifying things and bringing them in other directions.”
There’s already a track record in place, with Fisher pointing to the success of Dutch writer Roxane van Iperen’s 2018 non-fiction title “’t Hooge Nest” (“The High Nest”), which was translated into English as “The Sisters of Auschwitz” and became an international bestseller.
“That was a great example of the resources we can invest in authors that we identify as breaking out of their local markets,” says Fisher.
“There may be these projects that do incredibly well, whether it’s Germany, Holland or Japan, and what we’re interested in is giving them a global platform in the same way we’ve been doing with our English-language writers, and breaking them out beyond the English language.”
Unsurprisingly, given the red-hot demand for literary IP, the agents say “conversations have intensified” in recent years between the books department and the literary packaging arm, which oversees the adaptation deals.
“We are always in communication with them,” says Bonner. “Good news for us can be good news for them, and vice versa, especially as streamers become more global. When there’s a huge bestseller in a market, that’s important for them to know, and can really support the efforts of making that TV show or movie very global, and the book might have been the entry point for that market.”
It doesn’t always need to be the latest bestseller, either. Such is the demand for quality IP that agents point to many older titles now enjoying a renaissance.
“There’s been a variety of rhythms to a project,” says Bonner. “Sometimes, yes, a lot of dealmaking is done at the beginning, right when the U.S. deal is done and literary packaging is all over it, generating tremendous heat in all areas. But sometimes it takes until publication, and long after publication. Sometimes, books published years ago get to experience a whole new life. There’s more variety of trajectories than there used to be.”
Forbes Watson, who is based out of the U.K., says the trend also reflects how literary agents work in separate territories on behalf of their authors.
“You’re not always going to hit the ground running immediately in finding the U.K. market for a U.S. author, for example. It might be that you establish them and, over time, you take a long view and you build,” says Forbes Watson. “That’s something we’re uniquely placed to do. Long-term career building is not just about the domestic territory: it’s about finding the readership in a bespoke way in each individual market.”
As far as talent discovery and bringing new writers into the fold, following success with authors from Western Europe, such as Van Iperen, the team is now looking to explore Asia for both fiction and non-fiction.
“There’s a lot we can learn from their storytelling traditions,” says Bonner. “It’s ripe for more exploration.”
Meanwhile, Forbes Watson also has plans to grow the U.K. team and sign new talent. She cites up-and-coming voices like British-Jamaican polymath Akala, who began his career in music but has also published books, including 2018’s critically acclaimed non-fiction title “Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire.”
“We’re always interested in whether a client has potential outside of the book space. [Akala] has a very strong book business but touches so many different areas of the agency, whether it’s speaking, podcast or film and TV. That will be a big focus for us [in the U.K.].”
(Pictured: Laura Bonner, Tracy Fisher, Matilda Forbes Watson)