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The book agent: Karin Graf

Since its creation in post-Wende Germany in 1995, Graf & Graf has grown to be one of the most respected literary agencies in the country. Karin Graf is the grand dame behind the Berlin book juggernaut.

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Photo by Michal Andrysiak

Whether expat or native, German or English, e-publisher or champion of paper, this series of six Berliners represents the many facets of publishing. Each at the forefront of their field, they all contribute to make the Berlin literature scene what it is – forward-thinking, versatile… and above all, exciting!

Karin Graf is the best help any writer could hope for to transform a manuscript into a bestseller.

Should every writer have an agent? “Yes, unless you are young, good-looking, gifted and extremely talented at negotiating. Very few writers are all that.” Karin Graf runs her hand over the spines on the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stocked with a copy of every book that has been published from every writer she represents. Her heels land deliberately on the herringbone parquet floor of her splendid Charlottenburg office.

“When you spend so much time in a place, you want it to feel like a home,” she says. Behind Graf’s soft voice and elegant composure hides a steady passion and determination that led her literary agency Graf & Graf to become the most respected in Germany, its proprietress the most powerful literary figure in Berlin.

At the beginning of it all, her office was just one room in her home. That was in 1995, when she became one of the first literary agents in reunified Berlin. In the early 20th century there had been a tradition of literary agencies, many of them Jewish; most were therefore shut down during the Nazi era and the business never really recovered. Observing the English-language literature business, Graf spotted a gap. Those were the early years after reunification, and a new generation of ex-GDR writers was emerging. She decided the time was right for her.

“I didn’t start the agency as most people would now, by taking a loan from a bank,” she says. “I went about it in a more ‘playful’ way.” A successful literary translator and PR advisor to publishing houses and theatres, she continued these jobs during the initial stages of building up her agency. After five years, she was able to move into her own office. In 2013, Graf & Graf represents 150 writers, ranging in age from 22 to 82 years old. This year alone the agency’s stable of authors scored 23 different literary prizes, including the Leipzig Book Fair and Frankfurt Book Fair Awards.

Graf worked mostly alone when she started, with only Heinke Hager, who was still a student at the time. Hager is now the CEO, and the agency employs eight people. Until two years ago, these were all women. Did Graf plan it that way? “It was just a coincidence. However, being a woman is part of the reason why I wanted to be independent, because this so-called ‘glass ceiling’ exists in the publishing industry as well as anywhere else.”

Graf’s day begins with reading over contracts at home before coming into the office at 10am to spend hours on the phone and in appointments with writers. In the evenings and on weekends there are always presentations, book launches and parties to attend, or staged theatrical adaptations of her writers’ novels.

On weekends, she reads new manuscripts. What are her criteria? “Well of course it has to be written with good style, a level of suspense over more than 200 pages, and it has to draw me in. Then I have to ask if it will interest at least 5000 people – if it is less than that, the book will be too small for our agency to take on.”

She knows good style and writer’s craft when she sees it, and yet she has “never, ever” considered writing anything herself. “I don’t have a story to tell,” she says with remarkable certainty. “As a fiction writer, you must be extremely sure about the story you want to tell people. You have to have the passion. Otherwise it’s fiction, but it’s not literature.”

Instead, she knows exactly what she can do very well: build networks and represent her writers. The importance of knowing the right people cannot be understated. “Anybody can send a manuscript around. I never send one without thinking who it is most suited to.” Her writers come to her through personal recommendation only – the agency has no website and does not need one.

Graf denies having any personal favourites among her authors. “Of course I’m proud of them all; the ones that have been with us for a long time, the new ones, any who won prizes, and the young ones.” Today there are around 100 literary agencies in Germany, yet Graf & Graf remains on top. “In 2015 we will be 20 years old,” the grand dame of book agents says, and adds with a hint of pride, “So, there will be a big party.”

Recent favourite book: German Book Prize winner Das Ungeheuer by Terézia Mora.

Favourite Berlin literary place: “In the winter it is definitely my Le Corbusier reading chair; in the summer, my garden where I have several spots to recline for reading.”

Originally published in issue #122, December 2013.