Mith the Frankfurt Book Fair, the physical marketplace for worldwide author rights will also be canceled this year. Petra Hardt, born in 1954, knows what that means. She is a veteran of the industry, headed the rights and licenses department at Suhrkamp Verlag for decades. She has also trained publishers all over the world, and her industry bible “Buying, Protecting and Selling Rights” (Bramann-Verlag) is available in eight languages. Hardt can get to the point from raving in no time. Anyone who has completed “fair pitches” for decades has mastered the art of condensed speech. A conversation about the golden era of license trading.
WORLD: You have been retired for a year, so out of business. Still sad that the classic fair is not taking place?
Petra Hardt: As a rights and license dealer, it was the date of the year for me. A guild comes together like in ancient times or in the Middle Ages. You only see most of my foreign colleagues once a year – it has always been the best part of professional life for me. That has not changed in the age of digital communication.
WORLD: How did a typical book fair go for you?
Hard: Extremely well planned and meticulously prepared. Every half hour our team received foreign publishers and editors at the stand and tried to get deals. You have to prepare these half an hour like changing tires in Formula 1. You have to know who is coming, what they want, what you can offer. Market knowledge and program knowledge of foreign publishers are essential.
WORLD: The publisher from China has to be comfortable to buy Handke?
Hard: Yes. But above all, you have to know whether Peter Handke’s work fits into the relevant Chinese program. It is your job to retain the publisher or editor of the work of the author you are representing. It’s not just about licensing deals, it’s about getting to know the publisher and his company. Over the years, not only a professional but also a private interest in each other has developed. Friendships develop over the years.
WORLD: That sounds exciting.
Hard: The most exciting time in rights trading was the internationalization after 1990. From 1980 to 1990 the industry negotiated at the Frankfurt Book Fair exclusively in a Western European, American, Japanese, Israeli and South American context. That was very manageable. Nobody could have guessed how unmanageable it would be. That was exciting and I am grateful that the globalization of the book market took place in my professional career and that all of these new markets were added.
WORLD: How do you actually become a “licensed woman”?
Hard: I started at Athenaeum in 1980, where I sold the book “Prussian Profiles” by Sebastian Haffner and Wolfgang Venohr to Gallimard! At the age of 26, right after graduation. Beginner’s luck. Later I was with Luchterhand, at that time the publishing house with the world rights of Günter Grass and well-known authors like Peter Härtling, Ernst Jandl, Christa Wolf, who later switched to Suhrkamp.
In 1994 Siegfried Unseld was looking for an employee and possible future successor for Helene Ritzerfeld, the legend of the house who had turned eighty in 1994. She has been with the publishing house since Peter Suhrkamp’s time and has headed the rights and licenses department since the publishing house was founded. The rights portfolio is the capital of every publisher, but at Suhrkamp it is really the sine qua non. Hesse and Brecht, who followed Peter Suhrkamp into the new publishing house in 1950, enable Suhrkamp to create exclusive added value until 2032 and 2026 respectively. Suhrkamp’s backlist was the luck of my life.
WORLD: Which skills are required in license trading?
Hard: Reading, reading, reading. Persuasiveness, strategic thinking, organizational skills, patience and diplomacy. You must be able to put yourself in the everyday situation of the foreign publisher: What are the economic and cultural framework conditions? A broad field, but that’s why it’s so exciting.
WORLD: Is the rights trade like the diplomatic service of the book industry?
Hard: The craft is discreet, most people don’t know much about it, but it can have a great global impact. You need a text and, ideally, you can license it in 100 languages, in various film, theater and game formats. The classic teaching example to demonstrate the market strength of licenses is JK Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. But that didn’t exist at the beginning of my professional life either.
What has always particularly fascinated me about licensing is the strategic task that is associated with it. There is content that is suitable for a certain period of time, and there are topics and motifs in literature and the humanities that are timeless. To put oneself at the service of these works and to place them in such a way that they can be delivered worldwide at short notice or in the long term according to their type. It’s an incredibly exciting job.
WORLD: Do you need law for the job?
Hard: Jurisprudence is a possible prerequisite, especially for contract work, but the humanities are more appropriate, because this industry is primarily about content. You must be able to read and classify the content. Today, many who do the job have studied applied literature. The subject didn’t exist in my time. As a Romance philologist, you must also be able to work with philosophical works. Without the ability to form strategic and content-related work groups, we would not have been able to position Jürgen Habermas’s works in China so successfully.
WORLD: Placing Habermas in China – how does that work in practice? How do you know which publishers are out, who makes philosophy? Don’t you have to be able to speak Chinese for this?
Hard: When I first came to China in 2004, we didn’t understand much about the market. We could neither pronounce the names of the Chinese publishers nor ours. No one of the old generation of Chinese publishers spoke English. Consecutive interpreters were at our side. That made every conversation twice as long, but it also left room for thought.
WORLD: And the Chinese were interested?
Hard: Yes, very much, especially in the works of Adorno and Habermas. Of course, you need people you trust and experts on site for these licenses. In China, most publishers are state publishers, then as now. There are still censorship implications. Contact with Chinese Germanists and philosophers was important to me. Han Ruixiang, for example, had studied with Hans Höller in Salzburg, and so he specialized in the works of Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann. And so many complete editions were created in Chinese translation. Cao Weidong helped us a lot in the first decade of this century through his translations of the works of critical theory.
WORLD: Do you actually prefer to represent fiction authors or philosophers?
Hard: This question does not arise that way. You represent the publishing program and the rights of the authors you have commissioned through the publishing contract. Ms. Mercurio, my successor, our team and I looked into contemporary German literature and the science minded. The backlist of the Suhrkamp authors, on the other hand, was the great gift from Peter Suhrkamp and Siegfried and Ulla Unseld to all employees: Max Frisch, Hermann Hesse, Robert Walser, Uwe Johnson, Gershom Scholem, Nelly Sachs, texts that for the world are important.
WORLD: Does a dealer also have authors of the heart?
Hard: Paul Celan is a matter close to my heart. For Paul Celan and Jürgen Habermas and the further distribution of their works in the world, I moved with Suhrkamp from Frankfurt to Berlin at the end of 2009. Both names are a pars per toto. I can also name Thomas Bernhard and Volker Braun or Axel Honneth and Marcel Beyer or Nelly Sachs and Friederike Mayröcker.
WORLD: Where does the German license trade stand internationally?
Hard: The German-speaking book market is one of the best-selling in the world. The authors from English, Spanish and French rank first. The French theory with Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu, Levi Strauss is extremely successful worldwide. And with Camus and Houellebecq, the French publishers have two front runners in the field of fiction. The Scandinavians have also placed themselves extremely successfully – in the network. It is more difficult for smaller markets. How did the Slovenian author come to China? I have given many lectures on such questions.
WORLD: What characterizes the German market?
Hard: The German market is a medium market. Economically strong, he buys a lot of licenses. Even unknown authors from small countries get a publishing opportunity in Germany.
WORLD: Which Suhrkamp author has the most foreign licenses?
Hard: For decades it was Hermann Hesse before Jürgen Habermas and Peter Handke. Incidentally, Handke was already at number 3 in the internal charts before the Nobel Prize, closely followed by Thomas Bernhard.
WORLD: Handke before Thomas Bernhard? If he only knew.
Hard: For years, Bernhard ranked ahead of Handke when it came to foreign licenses. The reception of the works is subject to cycles. You can and must keep an author’s works alive through an intelligent estate administration. The brother of Thomas Bernhard, Dr. Peter Fabjan, and the chief editor von Suhrkamp, who died in April, Raimund Fellinger, impressively proven.
WORLD: What was the best thing about your job?
Hard: To know book publishers around the world who are the navigators of the cultural scene in their countries – that is a gift. The book trade allowed me to travel the world – and the book fair brought the world to Frankfurt. There is no alternative to this year’s virtual book fair. But in the long term, trade fairs are always something that has to take place analogously. International trading venues where you can see yourself in person remain important, especially when you are talking about content.