From the Library and Archives Canada website:

Nancy Colbert was born and raised in New York and after attending Bard College, worked in New York as a studio recording engineer, one of the first women to do so. In 1953, she married Stanley Colbert, also a New Yorker, who attended the University of North Carolina and, after serving in World War II, was an editor at McGraw-Hill and Henry Holt before running a literary agency where he represented, among others, Jack Kerouac and was responsible for placing On The Road with Viking Press.

In 1957, the Colberts moved to California, where Stanley Colbert became head of the literary department of the William Morris Agency’s west coast office. While Nancy remained at home, Stanley became involved in television and film production and a few years later they moved to Florida, where Stanley was executive in charge of production for the MGM studio that produced “Flipper” and “Gentle Ben,” two popular television series. In 1976, at the invitation of the CBC, the Colberts moved to Toronto, where Stanley became executive producer of film drama for the network, and where the Colberts subsequently became Canadian citizens.

In Toronto, the Colberts renewed their friendship with the Canadian author Timothy Findley, who had been Stanley’s client and had lived with the Colberts in California. Her efforts to help Findley publish his novel The Wars introduced her to the standard Canadian publishing contract, which granted the publisher all rights, and often the right of refusal on the author’s next work. Recognizing a need for knowledgeable representation of authors’ rights in Canada, in 1977 Nancy Colbert established her own literary agency in Toronto, Nancy Colbert & Associates.

Nancy Colbert was not the first literary agent in Canada, but she was the most influential. Matie Molinaro had begun representing authors in the early 1950s, but concentrated primarily on securing speaking engagements for her clients. By the 1980s, however, the number of agents working out of Toronto had swelled to include Lucinda Vardey, Bella Pomer and Beverly Slopen, all of them representing writers from across the country. But Nancy Colbert was widely considered to be the best: “the cream of the city’s literary agents” and “one of the country’s most respected literary agents[s],” as the Globe and Mail put it in 1983 (15 September).

Among Colbert’s major contributions to the change in publishing practices in Canada was her insistence on the separation of Canadian rights from general North American or Commonwealth rights in both her Canadian and U.S. contracts (an argument which struck a responsible chord in Canada in the nationalistic 1970s). At the same time, she aided her cause for treating sales in each country separately, and under the control of the author, by successfully selling the works of her Canadian clients to publishers throughout the world. She capitalized on the family connections with the American publishing world by offering Canadian books directly to that market when Canadian publishers showed no interest (one of her earliest coups was to sell the U.S. Rights to The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, by Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Verney, for an advance of US$150,000 from Simon & Shuster in 1979).

Within Canada, she fought on her clients’ behalf for bigger advances, greater control over foreign and subsidiary rights and greater commitment on the part of publishers for adequate promotion and responsible payment of royalties. She maximized the revenues her clients could realize by selling advance excerpts to newspapers and magazines, television rights, separate paperback edition rights, and foreign rights.

Colbert also initiated publishing projects, working with writers to develop saleable books. In 1979, for instance, she seized an opportunity when it was announced that the newly-sanctioned New York Times China correspondent had been asked to write a book on the country, even though he had not yet left New York. She immediately contacted then Globe and Mail China correspondent John Fraser by phone in Beijing, persuaded him to undertake the project and sold the promised book to Summit. Fraser’s The Chinese went on to become the first Canadian non-fiction book chosen by the Book of the Month Club as a main selection in both the U.S. and Canada.

Colbert was in the vanguard of promoting novelizations in Canada, and worked with publishers to release novelizations of works by her authors in other media, including Dreamspeaker, based on the television script by Anne Cameron/Cam Hubert, and Riel, based on the CBC television miniseries written by Roy Moore and produced by Stanley Colbert.

By 1984, the agency had grown to such size and complexity that it was necessary to add additional principals, and Colbert invited her husband Stanley, who was then head of light entertainment programs for the CBC, and their son, David (b. 1963), who had interned at the agency a year before graduating from Brown University, to join her, and the firm became The Colbert Agency. That year the three of them negotiated with Curtis Brown Agency in New York and London to form Curtis Brown Canada, which sold Canadian rights to popular American and British authors represented by Curtis Brown, responding to a growing demand by Canadian publishing houses to publish, rather than simply distribute, these books (resulting in increased revenue for the Canadian publishers as well as the authors). Together, the Colberts then began a methodical campaign to revise the standard contract of every major Canadian publisher, to make it more equitable with the needs and the contribution of the author.

The Colbert Agency largely represented book and periodical writers, but also represented screen writers, directors, film editors, story editors, producers and an occasional actor, such as Paul Gross, of Due South, and Sara Botsford. Among other clients were Barbara Amiel, Doris Anderson, Carol Bolt, Sharon Butala, Morley Callaghan, June Callwood, Silver Donald Cameron, Joan Clark, Robertson Davies, R.A.D. Ford, Jack Granatstein, Edward L. Greenspan, Sandra Gwyn, Richard Gwyn, Isabel Huggan, George Jonas, W.P. Kinsella, Dennis Lee, Rohinton Mistry and Guy Vanderhaeghe. In its peak years, the agency had more than 300 actively working clients in all media. In its first years, the agency charged a fee of 10% of its client’s revenues; by 1985 new clients were charged 15% up to the first $30,000 of revenue and 10% thereafter.

All royalty cheques and other income from sales negotiated by the Colberts went directly to the agency’s trust account and, after deduction of the agency fee, the balance was transmitted directly to the client.

In 1989, five years after the agency became a family affair and its volume of sales had more than quadrupled, the Colberts accepted an offer to take over part ownership and full management of HarperCollins Canada, and sold the agency to people with established publishing interests. In 1995, they sold their interest in HarperCollins Canada to Canadian principals. David Colbert, who had become publisher of HarperCollins West, in San Francisco, became an author/packager of books and multimedia materials. Nancy and Stanley Colbert returned to the United States, settling in North Carolina, where Stanley Colbert is now distinguished visiting professor, teaching screenwriting and book publishing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Update: My parents moved back to Toronto after my father retired from teaching.
© 2009, 2014, 2015 David Colbert.
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