A pocketful of stories
September 23rd, 2009
By Tiina Kristoffersson (Stilton Finland)

The season of international book fairs is rapidly approaching. Tomorrow Gothenburg Book Fair opens its doors. The bold and beautiful Frankfurt International Book Fair takes place in the middle of October. Before I became an agent, I used to sit on the other side of the table buying translation rights for books. My role as a buyer was excellent training for my future role as an agent. When you have met enough sales people, you at least know how not to do things. In my previous life as a publisher of children's books I came across an agent who wasted the first fifteen minutes of his sales pitch praising a book that was intended for fifty-something men. Sometimes good old “how can I help you?” is good to start with.

One of the key tasks of a literary agent is to sell the translation rights of books that he or she represents. It is a pleasure to sell good books. If an agent doesn't genuinely believe in his books, he will find it difficult to sell them. The idea of book fairs is simple, but it is always difficult to strike a good deal. It is really important for agents to prepare well for their meetings with publishers. The agent books half-hour meetings with foreign publishers and allocates time for them in his or her calendar. Agents sit in a huge exhibition hall containing rows of tables. The publishers arrive at the venue and sit opposite the agents to listen to their sales pitches.

The competition is fierce. In just under 30 minutes, the agents need to get the publishers interested in the books they represent. It is important to stand out from the crowd. As anyone who has ever bought book rights will know, you don’t buy books with intelligence, but with instinct. If a publisher is interested, they may request sample chapters of the book, and they might even read them. In oversaturated markets it takes the agent effort just to get the publisher to pick up the books. Afterwards it is the authors’ turn to let the book talk.

When the agent receives an offer on one of their books, it is always a joyous moment. The seller must however keep a cool head, even during moments of jubilation. The agent’s role is to negotiate the best possible contracts for his or her authors. You cannot negotiate a good contract unless you keep your wits about you. On rare occasions, an agent manages to initiate an auction in which several publishers fight over the right to publish his or her book. In order to attract an auction, a book needs to have more going for it than just a good storyline. It needs to have commercial potential, the right timing, and something that I would call magic. Every top sales person also has a touch of magic, and it takes years to achieve the status of a superstar. I am at the start of my particular journey, but I already have a pocketful of stories.