Tanja Howarth talks to New Books in German about her career.
Celebrated literary agent Tanja Howarth reflects on some of the highlights from her sixty-year career in literary publishing.
Sheridan Marshall (SM): What drew you to a career in literary publishing?
Tanja Howarth (TH): I can tell you that literary publishing chose me, rather than the other way round. I came to London from Graz in Austria, and after passing the Lower and Higher Cambridge Proficiency Exams in 1959, I wanted to get a job as a secretary. As an ‘alien’, companies had to apply for work permits and prove that the applying candidate was suitable. Because of my German and French language skills, I was offered a job with a publisher called Abelard-Schumann, a New York based company with a branch in Munich. This experience of translating, typing correspondence in two languages, answering telephones, meeting authors, enjoying ‘girl Friday’ tasks – all this for and with BOOKS! I knew then that a career in Publishing was my ‘Bag for Life’.
SM: How did the Tanja Howarth Literary Agency come into being?
TH: In 1961 I was fortunate to be hired as a P.A. to Mark Hamilton, the director of the prestigious Literary Agency A.M. Heath, where I learned all about the business of agenting by working with some of the most influential and important writers of the 1960s, ‘70s and beyond. Fast forward to 1967, after a year in Africa with my photojournalist husband and the birth of my son Peter in 1964, I wanted to return to my ‘Life with Books’.
In 1968 I met Rainer Heumann, whose Mohrbooks Agency in Zurich represented most of the literary agencies in London, selling their rights in the German-speaking market. There was an obvious vacuum as far as placing German authors in the English-speaking market was concerned. The Tanja Howarth Literary Agency was born and started to operate from a flat in Prince of Wales Drive, Battersea, in London. My very first sale for £250 was a novel by Gerhard Zwerenz called Casanova oder der Kleine Herr in Krieg und Frieden, bought by a young Ed Victor who had just arrived from New York to be an editor at Jonathan Cape.
At the same time, ‘foreign’ publishers were beginning to want to know more about the British market and I was the first scout to work for S. Fischer Verlag and their theatre department. ‘Literary scouting’ – I don’t know when the word ‘literary’ was added – gave the profession some gravitas and opened opportunities to anyone with publishing connections. There was fierce competition for representation of the most important foreign publishers and looking through my records, I was amazed to find contracts with the following publishers.
Starting with S Fischer Verlag (Frankfurt, Germany), I added the following publishers to my client list: H. Aschehoug & Co (Oslo, Norway); Droemer Verlag (Munich, Germany); Uitgeverij J.H. Gottmer/H.J.W.Becht (Amsterdam, the Netherlands); Lademann (Copenhagen, Denmark); Almquist & Wiksell (Stockholm, Sweden); Weilin & Göös (Helsinki, Finland); dtv (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag) (Munich, Germany); Kiepenheuer & Witsch Verlag (Cologne, Germany); Plaza & Janes (Madrid, Spain); Putnam (New York, U.S.A); and even for ‘Stern Magazine’ (Hamburg; Germany).
Some of the most important and memorable scouting successes were Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch for S. Fischer Verlag, Whose Life is it Anyway? by Brian Clark for their Theatre Department, Perestroika by Michael Gorbachev for Droemer, Nick Hornby for Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Jaws by Peter Benchley for Weilin & Göös in Finland and since we are going some thirty or more years back, I am sure there were many other English authors who were published in countries I worked for as a ‘Literary Scout’.
SM: What skills do you need to be a successful literary agent?
TH: I have always used a very personal approach and add to this, incurable curiosity, a gambling gene, bookshop browsing obsession, diplomacy, a sense of humour, networking abilities and NEVER taking rejections personally, you get the perfect mixture.
SM: How did German-language literature used to be perceived in the UK?
TH: At the end of the 1980s and into the ‘90s, it became quite apparent that the demand and indeed interest in German, Austrian and Swiss literature was as low as ever, and I decided that my Agency should try and persuade British publishers to publish more translations. I took on the representation of publishers for selling their foreign rights. Among these were Rowohlt Verlag (Hamburg, Germany); Diogenes Verlag (Zurich, Switzerland), Kiepenheuer & Witsch (Cologne, Germany), Hoffmann & Campe (Hamburg, Germany), Thienemann-Esslingen (Stuttgart, Germany); Hanser Verlag (Munich, Germany), Piper Verlag (Munich, Germany); Emons Verlag (Cologne, Germany) and Edition Nautilus (Hamburg, Germany). I also tried my best for the estates of Joseph Roth, Siegfried Lenz and Heinrich Böll.
German-language publishing was given a boost by New Books in German, which launched at the Frankfurt Bookfair in 1996 with its first edition published in 1997. This needs no further introduction, and I am proud to have been one of the founder members twenty-five years ago.
SM: How has the publishing landscape changed over the course of your career?
TH: Although I made my name working with German publishers and authors, I realised that there was an opportunity to represent British writers as an agent, and specifically to sell their rights to the German market. So, in 1985 I moved to Covent Garden and opened an office in Bedfordbury, Covent Garden, London, in order to give the agency a more professional standing. From here I combined my ‘literary scouting’ obligations, with representing and finding English and foreign publishers for authors like A.L. Kennedy, Margaret Durrell, Trevor Hoyle, Tom Callaghan – a tough crime writer setting his stories in the unusual setting of Kyrgyzstan – and Gilda O’Neil, whose East End Sagas and historical memoir, My East End, were hugely successful. Amongst them was what I would like to call ‘the mother of chick-lit,’ Sue Dyson, who wrote those wonderful novels under the pen name of Zoe Barnes. There were also a number of ‘one-book’ authors like George Hayter with Heathrow, and Nic Johnston’s A Head Full of Blue, a harrowing autobiographical account of overcoming his alcohol addiction.
SM: What are the barriers to publishing German authors in the English-language market?
TH: Publishers may find translation costs too high, and they also do not have enough German-speaking professional readers to advise them.
SM: What are the most memorable titles you have placed with English-language publishers?
TH: These would include titles like Perfume by Patrick Süskind, The Swarm by Frank Schätzing, The Panama Papers by Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier, Angela Merkel’s biography by Stefan Kornelius, Willy Brandt’s World Armament & World Hunger, Ferdinand von Schirach’s novels and Volker Kutscher’s oeuvre, Heinrich Gerlach’s Stalingrad, Blitzed by Norman Ohler, Otfried Preussler’s Krabat and nine titles by the irrepressible Sebastian Fitzek. Excitingly, his first novel Therapy (2006), has been filmed for Amazon Prime Video and will be released as a six-episode series in autumn 2023 dubbed into ten languages and sub-titled in twenty-four languages. I should also add the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004; this give us hope that translations are being published and above all, read by an English-speaking readership.
SM: What about the ones that got away?!
TH: I wish I had found a publisher for the brilliant semi-autobiographical works by Joachim Meyerhoff; and Das Buch der Verbrannten Bücher by Volker Weidermann, a perfect title for all universities and bibliophiles.
SM: What books are on your reading list this year?
TH: Robert Menasse: Having followed Robert’s writing career from the beginning with Die Vertreibung aus der Hölle (2001) and Wings of Stone (1991), Die Erweiterung is at the top of my reading list. I am also looking forward to reading The Right to Live by Maria Lazar. What I love about ‘re-discoveries,’ particularly one like this, is the way in which real-life events are woven into a narrative full of human drama and tragedy.
SM: What does the future look like for German-language literature in the UK?
TH: All a title ever needs is one offer by a committed publisher, who chooses a good cover artist and the right translator to introduce the English-reading public to German talent. There is no reason for this not to happen today, just as it has so many times in the past. As for me, although my literary scouting adventures gradually came to an end and I no longer represent German publishers, I still look after the ever-expanding literary empire of Sebastian Fitzek in this country, am open to new challenges and, above all, hugely enjoy being a member of the editorial and steering committees of New Books in German, which has become an international guide for editors and publishers worldwide.
Thank you so much for talking to NBG, Tanja, and sharing the story of your extraordinary career.