Peter Janson-Smith passed away on Friday, April 15, 2016, at the age of 93. He was a giant in the world of British publishing, a major figure in that arena for nearly seventy years. Serious James Bond fans will know him as Ian Fleming’s literary agent, the man who spearheaded the exploitation of Fleming’s 007 novels around the world from 1956 until Peter’s retirement in 2002.
On a personal level, Peter’s death is a great loss. For me, he was a mentor, a friend, a teacher, and someone I called my “English dad.” He was instrumental in the research for my 1984 book, The James Bond Bedside Companion, and he hired me to write the continuation James Bond novels in the mid-90s. In short, I owe much of my career to him.
I was privileged to have been asked to speak at Peter’s memorial service, which took place October 24, 2016 at BAFTA in London. The other speakers were Kate Grimond (Ian Fleming’s niece), Richard Holmes (noted author), Mathew Prichard (Agatha Christie’s grandson and publishing colleague), and Deirdre Janson-Smith (Peter’s daughter). Attendees included Barbara Broccoli, Fergus Fleming, John Gardner’s children Simon Gardner and Alexis Walmsley, and current and former board members of the Ian Fleming Foundation. It was a warm event celebrating the life and career of a dear person to all of us.
Sometime in the late 1990s, I talked him into allowing me to interview him for a piece that I could present as a profile of an unsung hero behind the scenes of James Bond. The story was published in the spring 2010 issue of Crimespree Magazine, and then later reproduced on the CommanderBond.net website.
I am pleased to allow Artistic License Renewed to reprint this profile again.
Cheers to Peter.
When asked how he became a literary agent, Janson-Smith explains that any ex-members of Oxford university serving in the army during World War II were entitled free of charge to have on demobilization the services of an employment appointments board. It was December 1946 and Janson-Smith had just been released from his service as a major—a radar specialist in charge of an anti-aircraft battery that was part of London’s defenses against the Germans.
“I went to see these nice people and informed them of my wish to work in publishing,” Janson-Smith relates. “Lo and behold, the chap I was talking to looked up something and said, ‘Oh, yes, the Oxford University Press wants someone to take charge of Bible sales in Africa.’ I said, ‘No, thank you very much.’ As there wasn’t much else on offer there, I started to leave; but the man said, ‘Hold on, I just had a letter, it’s somewhere on my desk. Man says he’s a literary agent; I don’t know what that is, but it sounds like something to do with publishing.’” Indeed, the letter was from A. D. Peters, a famous literary agent in England. He was looking for an ex-service man to be his assistant. “So I wrote to A. D. Peters and had an interview. And he took me on! That was in London, and I was paid seven pounds a week.”
The rest, as they say, is history. It took another ten years, some of them at Curtis Brown, before Janson-Smith struck out on his own as an agent; but once he did, he represented some of Britain’s best-known authors, including Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler, Anthony Burgess, and Richard Holmes, the now-famous literary biographer.
Janson-Smith went to university in March 1941. While attending St. Edmond Hall at Oxford, he volunteered to join the Royal Artillery, knowing he’d be then allowed to finish his examinations and wouldn’t be called up until then. Janson-Smith obtained what was called a Wartime Degree, allowing him to finish in less than half the normal time, and he didn’t go back after the war.
At the end of June 1942, Janson-Smith joined the army. He was posted to an officer training unit in Wales and emerged in January of ’43 as a 2nd Lieutenant. He was posted to an anti-aircraft battery in London and became part of the defenses of the city for the duration of the conflict. “I saw no action face-to-face, but quite a lot of bombs were being dropped on us, as well as the V-1s, the flying bombs, you know.” Janson-Smith became the regiment’s adjutant and later a major in charge of a battery.
“I became the radar specialist, and it was very interesting. I didn’t understand it completely, it didn’t make me an electronics expert by any means, but I did learn it well enough to operate the equipment and train other people.”
Janson-Smith didn’t come up for release from the army until the end of 1946. It was then that he became a trainee literary agent for the aforementioned A. D. Peters. His duties were more or less everything to start with, and then he became interested in translation and foreign rights. He eventually specialized in that, although in the very early days as an agent for Peters, Janson-Smith did actually place with Methuen the first book by Bryan Forbes, who later became famous not as a writer but as a film director (Whistle Down the Wind, Séance on a Wet Afternoon).
The relationship with Peters was a rocky one, mainly due to circumstances. The agent had lost his son only a few days before the end of the war; the young man had been due to inherit the literary agency.
“So, of course, every time Peters looked at me, he was thinking, ‘That’s not my son and should be.’ So I could never do anything right and he never taught me anything. But there’s no better way to learn a job than being thrown in at the deep end, and I remember very early on having a very angry Evelyn Waugh on the telephone while Peters was away, and I had to placate him.”
Janson-Smith stayed with A. D. Peters until then end of 1949 and then joined Curtis Brown as the manager of the foreign language department.
“I thoroughly enjoyed that,” he says. “I can’t claim to be fluent in any other language, but I can read French with ease—my spoken French is dreadful—and it’s the other way around with German. Because I was never taught, I just picked it up so I can get by with German; but I can’t read it easily except for contracts, for which I know all the technical terms and so forth.”
The young agent started selling Eric Ambler’s translation rights in 1952 and eventually got to know him and other Curtis Brown authors. One day in the summer of 1956, Ambler asked Janson-Smith why he went on working with that “extraordinary man” Spencer Curtis Brown and suggested that Janson-Smith go off on his own. Knowing that one had to have an amazing piece of luck on one’s own for the first two or three years, Janson-Smith answered that he couldn’t afford it. Ambler offered to loan the necessary money and become Janson-Smith’s first star client.
Over the years, the young agent amassed a respectable stable of authors, including Richard Holmes, who has achieved great success as a biographer of major figures of British and French Romanticism. Gavin Maxwell was a notable author of non-fiction, best known for the international best-seller, Ring of Bright Water. Anthony Burgess was a client for a short time, and in fact, it was Janson-Smith who sold the publication rights to A Clockwork Orange in the early sixties.
“I selected mostly non-fiction authors, especially historians who wrote for the non-academic reader. For example, for Alan Palmer I negotiated a four-book contract which enabled him to give up his job as a school teacher and become a full-time writer. I never acted for an author whose work I did not know well or did not admire.”
In September of 1956, Janson-Smith received a phone call from Ian Fleming. The erudite Etonian said,
“I was at a dinner party recently and I mentioned that my British publishers, who control all rights in my novels except for the American, had not done a very good job selling James Bond internationally.”
(At this point there had been three 007 novels published by Jonathan Cape Ltd.) Fleming went on to say that although Bond was very English, he thought the character should have a very international appeal. Apparently, Eric Ambler had been at the dinner and told him that Janson-Smith made him more money from foreign language rights than from British ones and made the referral.
“So here I am ringing you,” Fleming continued. “Why don’t you come to tea at Kemsley House and let’s have a chat.”
The meeting with James Bond’s creator went very well. Fleming didn’t at that time want an agent for British rights, as he handled those himself. He also had an American agent just for that market, but he told Janson-Smith, “You can have all my foreign translation rights as of today.”
Immediately after the meeting, Janson-Smith rang up a Dutch publisher called Abs Bruna and said, “I have an author for you who is going to make you a lot of money.” The agent proposed a contract for the first four Bond titles with good royalties but not much in the way of an advance. The publisher signed up and later bought each novel as it came out—and they’ve never been out of print in The Netherlands since.
Janson-Smith eventually came to handle Fleming’s dealings with the author’s British publisher beginning with the short story collection For Your Eyes Only (published in 1960) and also took care of serializations in the Daily Express. Fleming had already sold the rights in the first four books for the comic strip published in the newspaper, which began in 1957.
“It’s amazing that you’ll find many famous authors at the time, even when they had agents, would go off and sell something on their own. Later on, I had a real battle with the Daily Express because he’d sold the serial rights in the early ones for an outright sum. Fortunately, they sold the comic book rights, which they certainly did not have, to a Swedish publisher. When I found out, they said, ‘Look, it was a mistake and we hope it doesn’t spoil our relationship. Can we come to some accommodation?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I can convert your illegal sale to a legal one on the basis that it’s clear that what you bought outright is what Ian thought he was selling, and that is the right to print your own strip in the newspaper, and we have to have new terms for the future.”
Despite working with Fleming for not quite a decade before the author’s untimely death, Janson-Smith never really got to know him well.
“Ian kept his acquaintances in compartments. He had a separate agent for his film rights and separate friendships for other activities such as his ownership of the periodical The Book Collector. Our meetings were always at Fleming’s office in Mitre Court, off Fleet Street. I’d sit down and start to tell him what was happening, but in those later years, he wasn’t very well and had a short attention span. Usually, after about ten minutes, he’d say, ‘Well, that’s all absolutely marvellous, you don’t need to tell me any more. I rely on you absolutely, you do what you think is right and I’ll sign the contract.’ I never socialized with him except at a couple of parties, like the Dr. No premiere party, which was naturally full of film people. I suddenly noticed that there was Ian sitting all by himself—nobody seemed to know who he was! So I sat down and we chatted.”
Not long before he died, Fleming sold fifty-one per cent of Glidrose, his company to which his copyrights were assigned, to Booker, a conglomerate that later came to own shares in several author estates. Janson-Smith joined the Board of Directors of Glidrose at that point.
“Ian’s wife Ann was against the sale,” Janson-Smith said. “She was completely paranoid, she hated Jock Campbell, the head of Booker, for some reason. She was convinced everyone was out to swindle Ian. It’s absolutely untrue. If he hadn’t done this, quite apart from the tax in the U.K., he would have had to pay some vast figure in America. I remember I had to go to the U.S. and talk to their Internal Revenue people and convince them that Glidrose was a legitimate company. Our lawyer and I spoke to the IRS representative, and we let him go on until he contradicted himself. At that point, our lawyer told the man that he was ‘out of his cotton-picking mind’ and no more was heard of the IRS claim to tax on the basis that Glidrose was not a genuine company.”
After Ian Fleming’s death in 1964, Wren and Michael Howard of Jonathan Cape became his literary executors. After their deaths, this passed to Glidrose. Along with Janson-Smith, Ian’s brother Peter Fleming was also on the board. Janson-Smith later became the Chairman of Glidrose, which changed its name after some time to Ian Fleming (Glidrose) Publications Ltd. (and “Glidrose” was dropped at the end of the nineties). At some point in the late sixties, it was decided to commission a new James Bond novel and Glidrose approached Kingsley Amis. His 007 novel Colonel Sun was published in 1968 under the pseudonym Robert Markham.
“Ann was against it,” Janson-Smith says. “She hated Kingsley Amis, she thought he was one of those kitchen sink lefties who would ruin the image of Bond and so on, which is ironic because Kingsley became an extremely conservative old gentleman, but Peter Fleming persuaded Ann that it should be done. Kingsley was the obvious author because he was known to be a fan (his very complimentary review of Casino Royale in the Times Literary Supplement was probably the first to recognize that an important new author had arrived) and he’d also written The James Bond Dossier, so it was quite clear he understood it all.”
There was some speculation over the years that Amis had finished Fleming’s posthumously-published novel The Man with the Golden Gun. “I know that many people say this, but I don’t think he did. The Howards thought the book clearly needed editing and they consulted Kingsley, but it was a completed manuscript, so to say he ‘finished’ it is wrong.”
The seventies brought no new James Bond novels aside from a couple of oddities. John Pearson wrote a fictional “biography” of the character entitled James Bond—the Authorized Biography of 007, published in 1973.
“It’s never been considered part of the series,” Janson-Smith says. “It has been a very underrated book. I think it’s very good. Originally Pearson’s idea was that Bond was dead and so this was a complete biography, a clear indication that he wanted to write a book as if this was it and that was the end of Bond. I put my foot down and said, ‘No, you’ve got to have Bond in retirement being interviewed or reminiscing to a friend.’
Secondly, novelizations of the films The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker were penned by Christopher Wood in 1977 and 1979, respectively. “We had no hand in that other than we told the film people that we were going to exert our legal right to handle the rights in the books. They chose Christopher Wood because he was one of the screenwriters at the time, and they decided what he would be paid. We got our instructions on that, but from then on, these books-of-the-films became like any other Bond novel—we controlled the publication rights.”
In 1980, Glidrose hired John Gardner to continue the 007 series. Janson-Smith explains that they had asked H. R. F. Keating, a well-known and highly praised mystery writer, to come up with a short list of authors who might be right to carry on.
“It turned out that of them we liked John Gardner’s work, so we sounded him out. We asked if he’d be prepared to write two chapters so we could see. Then he did an outline, which we always insisted upon. Despite Cape not being all that keen, they obviously didn’t want any other publisher to do it. So we signed up John. We got a perfectly satisfactory but not brilliant contract with Cape, but we got a marvellous contract with Putnam, and that happened because I was talking to Peter Israel in Frankfurt. He said he’d just lost a big name author from one imprint in their group and said he had a hunch that the right author to replace him is whoever it is that’s writing Bond. ‘Well, it will cost you, Peter,’ I said. We worked out a very unusual contract which had very low royalties on the hardcover provided that they put X thousand dollars in publicity and that if it sold more than X, then they would pay an exceptionally high royalty on the paperback. And it worked. They had that promotion guarantee in the contract for the first four books, which of course were the ones that made the New York Times best-seller lists. After that, some reason, the sales fell off as the years went on.”
After ushering in Gardner’s replacement in 1996 (Raymond Benson, the author of this article) and overseeing Benson’s first five (out of six) Bond novels, Janson-Smith retired. The Fleming family had recently bought back the fifty-one per cent of the shares of the company owned by Booker, and the new millennium brought about changes in Ian Fleming Publications’ board of directors. There were all kinds of new directions in which they wanted to take the literary Bond.
During his time with Booker and Glidrose, Janson-Smith was also, for some years, a Family Director of Agatha Christie Ltd. and was responsible for the Booker part interest in the works of Georgette Heyer.
“When Heyer’s son bought back all rights to his mother’s books, he appointed me his agent. I fulfilled that duty until I founded the Ampersand Agency with Peter Buckman and then I entrusted the Heyer estate to the agency.”
Having been married three times (Janson-Smith has four children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren), he was survived by his fourth partner, Lili Pohlmann (whose late husband, Eric Pohlmann, was coincidentally an actor who voiced the unseen character of Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the film From Russia With Love).
Peter Janson-Smith was born September 5, 1922 and died April 15, 2016.
RAYMOND BENSON is the author of the recent IN THE HUSH OF THE NIGHT, THE SECRETS ON CHICORY LANE, and the popular THE BLACK STILETTO serial. Among his nearly 40 published books, he wrote six original James Bond novels, three film novelizations, and three short stories—all published worldwide. His 007 titles are currently available as e-books and collected in the print anthologies THE UNION TRILOGY and CHOICE OF WEAPONS.