By Olivia Snaije
This October marks twenty-one consecutive years that Barcelona literary agent Anna Soler-Pont has been coming to the Frankfurt Book Fair. In 1992, as an enthusiastic 24-year-old, with a background in Arabic literature and a passion for traveling, Soler-Pont arrived in Frankfurt with a pack of business cards and no scheduled appointments, but she convinced publishers to listen to her. She was in the process, she told them, of assembling a catalogue of women writers from different cultures to represent. Just several months earlier, Soler-Pont had traveled overland from Barcelona to New Delhi to visit these authors.
“Believe me, if you drive from Barcelona to Lahore to visit a writer, even if you’re only 24, they will receive you,” she says.
Twenty years later, the indefatigable Soler-Pont has sold 1,000 books, represents 77 international authors. This year her Pontas agency is riding high on the success of its Swedish author, Jonas Jonasson, whose first novel, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, has sold nearly four million copies in three years in various languages, of which 1.4 million copies were sold in Germany.
Pontas now is staffed by eight people. Soler-Pont has two partners—her husband, Ricard Domingo, former director at the Planeta Group and former director of Barcelona Televisió; and Marc de Gouvenain, a former editor at French publisher Actes Sud, and a specialist in Scandinavian literature. While at Actes Sud, de Gouvenain brought Stieg Larsson to the international arena.
In 2002 Pontas also became a film production company—an essential move for Soler-Pont because “30% of films produced today come from books.” Pontas now not only sells film rights but will also accompany a project until it reaches the screen.
Soler-Pont probably has more energy than most people, and she has been working non-stop for the past twenty years.
“We grew from what was a personal passion and curiosity to a business as well. At a certain point I had to learn about business and become a solid professional in order to provide good international service to my clients.”
In 2008, Soler-Pont’s hard work and passion came full circle when she met Palestinian-American author Susan Abulhawa. She went on to sell rights to Abulhawa’s debut novel, Mornings in Jenin, to over 20 countries as well as film rights. Abulhawa, she felt, was “the perfect client. After this long journey, she was the one who connected all the dots—the Arab world, a woman…”
Soler-Pont is referring to an experience that became the catalyst for her career as an agent: in 1991, while doing freelance translation work and copy editing for publishing houses and believing she would become an Arab specialist, she traveled to Cairo where she met with Naguib Mahfouz. During tea with Mahfouz and his wife, the author told Soler-Pont that, “winning the Nobel prize is nothing. I’m just an old man. Come with me to the café by the Nile where you can meet young writers.”
The café was filled with writers, including six women “who adopted me,” said Soler-Pont. When she returned to Barcelona her suitcase was loaded down with the women’s novels, and she had high hopes of having them translated into French or Spanish. Soler-Pont took out the phone book and began calling prestigious publishers, including Gallimard in Paris. “They all asked me the same two questions: ‘Are you a literary agent?’ and ‘who owns the rights?’”
“I didn’t know what a literary agent was, and I didn’t know anything about rights,” laughs Soler-Pont.
To learn about the business “you could either work for a literary agency or start your own. I chose the more difficult path.”
This path led her to Frankfurt a year later where she eventually spent 18 months working with the Book Fair in 2007 as commissioner of the program of Catalan culture, when Catalonia was the fair’s Guest of Honor.
“Frankfurt has been really important to me,” muses Soler-Pont. “For years my calendar began with Frankfurt, and every October people took me more and more seriously.”