In this article, LCB’s managing editor, Aaron Posehn, sits down with Gray Tan (譚光磊), president of The Grayhawk Agency (光磊國際版權經紀有限公司), to discuss his experience establishing a literary agency in Taiwan.
This post is the fifth in a series of interviews on entrepreneurship in Greater China. A listing of all interviews can be found here.
LCB: Having graduated from National Taiwan University (NTU) with a BA in Foreign Languages and Literature, you started working as a literary agent in 2004. However, you quickly moved on to start your own agency, The Grayhawk Agency, in 2008. What made you decide to start your own company in Taiwan?
GT: I guess I always wanted to start my own literary agency and it was just a matter of timing. This is a very “personal” business in which the agent (and his knowledge, experiences, and connections) is the most important factor, not necessarily where he works, and regardless of whether it’s a big agency or a small one. We see agents with years of experience striking out on their own or joining bigger companies in the US/UK all the time, so in a sense this was a very natural move. That being said, I was incredibly lucky in my previous agency; I was more like an affiliate agent there than a normal employee. I worked at home and had to find clients to represent on my own. I didn’t have any salary but split 50/50 with the company, who offered office support (payment, contracts, mailing, etc.) and their connections with Taiwanese publishers. It was kind of an entrepreneurial approach, and I am really grateful for this arrangement because it gave me space to explore and to grow my clients quickly. However, eventually I realized that there were new things that I wanted to do which had higher financial risks, and it was best to do them on my own, since it would be my responsibility, and so I launched my own agency in 2008.
LCB: Tell our readers a bit more about The Grayhawk Agency. What specifically does it do as a literary agency, as well as what are you responsible for as its president?
GT: We are mainly a sub-agent in the Chinese markets (simplified Chinese characters in mainland China and traditional Chinese characters in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao), which means we represent foreign publishers and agencies and sell Chinese translation rights to local publishers. We also represent Chinese writers in the foreign markets and currently have about 20 authors from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas. We’ve licensed their books in over 20 foreign territories, including the US, the UK, Germany, France, Holland, Japan, Israel, Italy, Russia, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, Sweden, and Denmark. I am very hands-on with my job, so I am as much on the frontline of selling rights as other agents in the office, though we each have different specialties: I handle exclusively fiction titles, for example, while others would handle non-fiction, French titles, and children’s books. We have a fantastic admin team who take care of contracts and payments, and in addition to work as a sub-agent, I am also responsible for our Chinese writers. We also run the annual Taipei Rights Workshop program on behalf of the Ministry of Culture.
LCB: You have represented the Chinese versions of some very famous books in the Chinese market, including Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. How does your company go about finding foreign publishers and literary agencies to represent in the Chinese-language market?
GT: At this point, we have a pretty heavy client load, which means we don’t go looking for new clients. Our first priority is to take care of the titles of our existing clients. I came to represent The Kite Runner very early in my career when I didn’t have a lot of clients. I actually approached the US agent for another novel, which I later sold in Taiwan; she was very happy and decided to let me handle this one as well. It had not become a big bestseller at the time, and no one expected it to be the hit that it was. It was my first breakout book and I’ve been working with that agent since then; over ten years now and we’re still together. E. L. James is a different story. Fifty Shades of Grey was given to me in 2012 by a client I started to represent in 2008, so I didn’t go out of the way to “find” it per se, but to make the best possible deal I could. Because most of our clients are top-notch publishers and agencies in their own countries, there’s a good chance that the titles being offered to us have potential to become bestsellers; our job is to identify such potential early on, usually a year or two before publication, and try to find the right publishers for them.
LCB: Besides representing foreign publishers, you also represent Chinese-language authors in international markets, with one of your most recent clients being Wu Ming-Yi (吳明益) and his book The Man with the Compound Eyes (複眼人) (translated by NTU professor Darryl Sterk). Is the process of representing Taiwanese and Chinese authors similar to representing foreign publishers and literary agencies?
GT: It’s quite different actually. First, the supply and demand is completely different. Let’s face it – Chinese books are not in such strong demand as English books are. That makes choosing the right book extremely important. For my sub-agent side, my colleague and I handle over a thousand foreign titles a year, and we make hundreds of deals in Taiwan and China. For the other way around, I only sign up one to two authors a year, because I really have to believe in them, both on personal and professional levels. I have to make sure that the Chinese books I submit to foreign editors are absolutely the cream of the crop, so that they will pay attention and consider our books as a priority. And it’s a very slow process, building up the networks with foreign editors, translators, scouts, etc. This also means I can’t miss any new Chinese novels and that means paying extra attention to the other side of the market, getting recommendations from people I trust, and, yes, a lot of extra reading. I also need to invest in English sample translation, without which there’s no chance I can sell the books abroad, since no one reads Chinese and everyone has to rely on English materials. It’s hard going and can be rather frustrating at times, and I’m always grateful that I have the sub-agent side of business because it’s a lot more steady, and as long as you put in hard work, you will manage to sell more. Not so with Chinese books, but that’s exactly what makes such an endeavor all the more rewarding!
LCB: What were the main difficulties you encountered when first establishing yourself as a literary agent? How did you manage these problems?
GT: No one knew who I was and I didn’t have any clients. I had worked as a freelance editor for a couple of publishers before becoming an agent, and I also translated George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, so I had a several connections and credentials in the fantasy/science fiction community. I started approaching writers or agents that I’d worked with before, and some of them were kind enough to offer me a few opportunities. I also went through new deal reports on a daily basis and would email agents whose books I was interested in. 95% of the time they would write back saying “Sorry, we’re represented exclusively by someone else.” But eventually I ran into a few agents who had no fixed representation or who were thinking about changing sub-agents. In those days, I would spend a lot of time doing research and writing long emails telling people who I was, what I’d done, and why I thought I could do something for their books. Genuine enthusiasm plus hard work, I guess!
LCB: What types of challenges do you encounter now that you and your company are firmly established?
GT: Keeping our clients happy. As I mentioned earlier, we have a pretty full client load already and don’t go looking for new clients very actively. We simply cannot afford to. However, a lot of new clients come to us by referral, and it’s hard to say no to a really great new client. However, old clients do fade away for a lot of reasons, so there’s no space, but there’s always space. I’d say the biggest challenge is finding the balance between workload and client load, and deciding when to expand and when not to. Making our clients feel they are being taken care of and not ignored is the most important thing for us. It might sound easy, but really isn’t, especially when you represent over 200 agencies and publishers!
LCB: What were your key personal assets that helped you to initially get your business off the ground?
GT: A real passion for books, for which I’m able to convey to publishers by writing catchy and engaging submission letters. A good memory of names: book titles, editors, agents, publishers, who has represented what at where, who bought which book when. Being able to connect the dots, and of course, being able to make good deals. As a relative latecomer to the game, I couldn’t compete with the old guards with their impressive client base, but I can offer more with my services: writing submission letters that editors can read quickly and easily, blogging about our books and helping in the promotion process, and even coming up with Chinese titles or marketing plans. Make the publishers feel you are part of the team and willing to help every step of the way.
LCB: Being that it is the nature of your business to interact with international clients and companies that are located around the world, how crucial is it to be able to speak other languages? Do Mandarin and English suffice, or have others been beneficial?
GT: Absolutely. My colleague, Nicolas, speaks French almost like a native speaker and that’s a key asset when he deals with French publishers. All of our clients speak English and we have no trouble communicating with each other, but I know I would be much closer to their hearts if I could speak Spanish (I represent a lot of Spanish clients)! At the end of the day, though, being able to speak another language (in addition to English) is a bonus, but not a must. I don’t speak Dutch, Hebrew, or Turkish, but I sell books in these languages all the same. What matters in the end is your connection with local publishers, their trust in you, and your ability to spot the right book and to present it to the right publisher.
LCB: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a literary agent in Taiwan, or in the Chinese-language market in general?
GT: Having a bit of experience in the publishing industry is very helpful, as you’ll have a basic sense of how this business works. Editors or rights managers at publishing houses are both good positions, and there are a lot more of these types of job openings there than at agencies. Be a part of the industry first, and find your way to becoming an agent.
LCB: What’s next for you and The Grayhawk Agency?
GT: We hope to continue to grow in the sub-agent business and plan to expand the Chinese author representation beyond fiction, and to include both non-fiction and children’s books. We are also hoping to sell more film and TV rights for our authors.
Aaron Posehn is currently the managing editor of LearnChineseBusiness.com and is a graduate of the University of British Columbia. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, he also currently works as an academic editor in Taipei. Endlessly interested in the cross between business and culture, he has written a free guidebook on how to learn Chinese characters for business and travel purposes.
Find Aaron on LinkedIn here.