Christopher John Little was born in York on October 10 1941, the son of Nancy Pickersgill, a former secretary, and her husband Bernard Little OBE, an RAF pilot who flew Spitfires in the Battle of Britain with 609 (West Riding) Squadron, and then became a coroner, notably at the inquest of Lesley Ann Downey, one of the Moors murder victims. Little and his brother David were brought up in Liversedge, West Yorkshire, and attended Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Wakefield.
Little passed five of his O-Levels, then, advised by his headmaster to consider “a business career – sales management for instance”, he left school to join his uncle’s textile firm in 1958. The next year, he moved to the carpet manufacturers T F Firth as an export sales trainee. In 1961, thanks to the Bradford Chamber of Commerce, he got a scholarship to learn French and work for the firm’s affiliate in Paris.
He was there for a year, and, after a spell back in Yorkshire, went abroad again as soon as he could, selling office supplies of carbon paper on commission all over France. There, he discovered the secret of a truly satisfying meal when money was short, which was to order two eggs in a café – as if by magic, a long, crusty baguette would turn up as well. Decades later, as an agent, Little was known for his hospitality – breakfasts at the Wolseley; long, languid lunches. He was very fond of good wine: “Something you can tell from my somewhat orotund belly”.
Little went on selling carbon paper in Thailand, Malaya, Singapore and Borneo before reaching Hong Kong in 1965, where he got a job at the local office of the Manchester textile firm Sir Jacob Behrens and Sons, selling high-quality British worsted suiting to wholesalers in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. Little also developed a secret gambling method which, he later said, worked well in the casinos and allowed him to make a small profit.
In 1967 he moved into selling mutual funds and in 1970, thanks to his fluent French and knowledge of Asia, joined Swiss Bank Corporation as its Far East representative, travelling through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In 1974, Little moved back to London and set up Christopher Little Consultants, recruiting for jobs in construction and manufacturing in the Middle East.
It was an old friend from Hong Kong, Philip Nicholson, who persuaded him to try his hand at selling books for a change. Nicholson had written a thriller, Man on Fire, under the pseudonym AJ Quinnell, and Little found him an American publisher. It sold 7.5 million copies and became a Hollywood film. Pleased, Little founded the Christopher Little Literary Agency. “It was really a hobby which started through an accident,” he said. Only in 1992 did he sell his consulting firm and devote himself to the agency, which by then represented 20 authors.
When the Harry Potter juggernaut took off, Little could have been forgiven for streamlining his client list down to one, but he did not. In 1996, he took on 23-year-old Darren Shan, another children’s author, whose books, including Cirque du Freak (which was turned down by 20 publishers), have gone on to sell 30 million copies.
Even when Harry Potter turned into a multi-million-pound franchise, Shan said: “I never had the feeling that I was in any way secondary.” In the final weeks before his death, Little was negotiating a television deal for Cirque du Freak. “If Chris believed in you, he remained loyal,” said Shan. Among his other authors were Kate McCann, with her book Madeleine: Our daughter’s disappearance and the continuing search for her, and General Sir Mike Jackson.
In 2011, however, just before the premiere of the final Harry Potter film, Rowling broke off relations with Little, appointing as her new agent Neil Blair, the lawyer who had been her copyright “Rottweiler” at Little’s firm. There was widespread shock.
Rowling called it a “painful decision”, saying she had “actively sought a different outcome for weeks” but that it was finally “unavoidable”. Little’s spokesman retorted that it “came out of the blue. He was surprised to say the least.” Friends reported him to be “extremely angry” but that the previous weeks had been “a nightmare”. There was a subsequent settlement; Little, a very private man, would never be drawn on what had gone wrong. When asked, he only “twinkled”.
Enormous wealth did not seem to change Little. He liked sailing but never bought a yacht, preferring to “rent the boats when I want them – it does save a lot of hassle”. Although he did give a party for his 60th birthday in the Chelsea Physic Garden that cost £250,000, and once wrote a friend in need a cheque for £1 million, the loan guaranteed only by a handshake, he was content to remain in the Fulham town house he had bought in the early 1990s.
He loved rugby and went to many games, and was always in particularly fine form after an England victory. His voice, which retained a touch of Yorkshire, was deep and warm. He was always impeccably turned out, rarely seen outside a suit and tie, and he embodied an old-world courtesy, which prompted him to stand up whenever anyone new walked into the room.
After his first marriage, to Linda Frewen in 1975, ended in divorce in 1987, he brought up their two sons, Kim and Nicholas, as a single parent. He is survived by his children, and by his widow Gilly, whom he married in 2012.
Christopher Little, born October 10 1941, died January 7 2021