Susanne Koppe is the founder of the Auserlesen-Ausgezeichnet literary agency in Hamburg, Germany. She represents both authors and illustrators, such as Katja Bandlow, Franziska Biermann and Antje Damm. Anita Loughrey interviewed her in January, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy).
What is the book or experience that made you want to work in children’s literature as a literary agent?
SK: As a teenager, I was a member of a book discussion group at the International Youth Library in Munich. Sometimes editors joined us to discuss books, so I got an idea of editorial work and–of course–wanted to become an editor. I decided to study German literature and did my first training at dtv junior in Munich.
I think I always liked stories with a real plot, which at that time (the prime time of Peter Handke, etc.) were too hard to find in literature for adults. Maybe, it was also because there were some authors I loved so much I wanted to stick in the field. As a young woman, I loved fairy tales and fantasy. And I quite soon discovered how nice it was to work with illustrations.
When I finished my first two years of studies, I gained a Fulbright scholarship to study Children’s Literature at Simmons College. At a summer conference, there were quite a few highly profiled speakers, among them agents and scouts. I also was introduced to the idea of packaging.
Coincidentally, after having finished my studies–I hold a German and American M.A.–I became a trainee at Beltz & Gelberg’s rights’ department. I was fascinated by the invisible literary good “rights” and the whole copyright system.
Later on, I started scouting and translating for Beltz & Gelberg and other companies, wrote for newspapers and became the first administrator of FILU, a self-organized illustrators’ convention/agency.
After a five-year intermezzo as head editor of Rotfuchs, the children’s book list of Rowohlt’s, I was more than tired of the stress and the declining liberties in a marketing-oriented company.
I wanted to continue working profoundly with my authors and illustrators. I wanted to create books that turned out brilliant because of the serious work put in. I wanted to have the possibility to develop a project before it was killed by narrow-minded sales people.
So I decided to become an agent for writers and illustrators, offering rights and package deals at the same time.
How did you get your start as an agent?
SK: For about a year, I thought of the concept of my future agency. I made sure the authors and artists I would like to work with–many of them friends–shared this wish. I invented the name “Auserlesen – Ausgezeichnet,” which on the one hand means “Excellent and Exquisite,” but also plays with the words reading (lesen) and drawing (zeichnen).
After I quit my job, it took me about half a year to develop up my visual C.I., my website and my first “program.” Officially, I started at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2002. I offered some novels and tried to find jobs for my illustrators. As a give-away, I had produced stamps with little sample of the artists’ work and quotes of the texts. These stamps continue to be my trademark even today.
I worked at home and was a one-woman show for one year. Luckily, my second year was so successful due to a big job by VW that I could move into an office I share with a graphic design company. Today, I have a steady freelance assistant for two days a week and occasional trainees.
What kinds of things “turn you off” a manuscript right away?
SK: People being too bold, too demanding, referring too much to their so-impressed spouses and kids… People who can’t write one halfway floating sentence.
From an agent’s point of view, what are the “realities”’ of children’s book publishing?
SK: It’s a tough business, but still it is not as tough as the general book market. I am frustrated about the uniformity of the market, but, luckily, again and again thrilled by great and unusual books.
Generally, I have the feeling children’s book editors are a bit nicer, but also more dogmatic than other editors. They love to dictate to authors and illustrators what to produce exactly, seldom there is respect for their artistic liberty. Other realities? Little money and slow decisions.
What was the easiest book to sell and why?
SK: Internationally, the books of Franziska Biermann to Korea: Because her book, Mr. Fox Likes Books, is so successful there! In Germany, the novel, Mimus by Lilli Thal–outstanding novels always find more than one publisher interested–and the Christmas song book, Am Weihnachtsbaume, because of the unique concept. Both nationally and internationally, Antje Damm’s book, What Is This?, is very popular.
Do you get involved with the marketing aspect of the book?
SK: I try to; it’s very important, but sometimes it’s hard because of my lack of time and/or the publisher’s unwillingness. In any case, I always try to maintain my good relations with the media that prove to be so helpful again and again.
Do you specialize in any particular genre and/or are you looking for anything in particular at the moment?
SK: High-quality books and original activity books.
In Germany, there seem to be more illustrations again in the adult market, after a long period of photographed covers.
For the first time, I did a bridge between a magazine I work with and the book market (I published a book under the magazine’s label).
What are publishers telling you about the market and what they’d like to see?
SK: Well, what do publishers do? They complain. And actually I think the market has got tougher. Especially as picture books have such small print runs. Books live less long, as the market is obsessed by bestsellers. So publishers love seeing something that “looks like…” If you offer something out-of-the-way, it needs to be outstanding. Many publishers (or is it just a few?) still love books, love to be amazed, love to believe in their works. And then, it’s fun to show them something…
Anita Loughrey writes teacher resources and children’s non-fiction. Her books have been published by A&C Black, Hopscotch and Brilliant Publications. She also writes regular features for Writers’ Forum in the U.K. about authors and the writing industry. She recently interviewed all 31 speakers for 2008’s Bologna Conference.
The SCBWI Bologna 2008 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations.