Interview with a literary agent: Sebastian Ritscher of Mohrbooks

Header banner showing a selection of globes of different styles

The annual cycle of international book fairs has been disrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak, but the business of publishing is continuing, as we all look for new ways to work safely together – even if this means working apart. This week we’re delighted to feature an interview with Sebastian Ritscher, CEO of Mohrbooks Literary Agency in Zurich. Read on to discover all about co-agenting, the importance of subsidiary rights, and future opportunities for the rights sector.

Can you tell us a little about the Mohrbooks Literary Agency?

Founded in the 1930s in London, the agency has always been a hub for translation rights. Today it’s based in Zurich and specialises in co-agenting German rights for US and international agencies and publishers. It negotiates and manages contracts for about 500 new books every year for the German market. It is probably the biggest in this special segment. We also offer back-office services to domestic German agencies.

What led you to become an agent, and what do you find most satisfying about this part of the industry?

The love for the poems by Dylan Thomas. I was young and hoping to become a translator. The agency that represented the rights at the time, gave me a job as an assistant instead of a translation contract. I discovered that I’m better at promoting, pitching, selling and managing copyright than at translating. That was 30 years ago. I look back without regrets. I love the business aspect of rights management, and the immense variety of books that we represent.

What role does co-agenting play for Mohrbooks?

About 90% of what we do is co-agenting, i.e. representing certain rights for either another agency or a publisher. We co-agent mostly German translation rights for US-based agencies and publishers. It’s a supporting role and we are good at that. It’s a B2B service which means we mediate between professionals. Diplomacy is the key. And efficiency. And, I believe, our partners trust us. The agency has been around for a long time and has proven to be stable and reliable. 

What’s the one thing you wish publishers understood about your work? 

We often grant subsidiary rights to publishers. But subsidiary rights tend to be undervalued. Audio is big now, but what about film, dramatic and translation? Not all publishers are aware of the responsibility they have towards their authors to fully exploit the value that lies in subrights, especially for their backlist. I encourage every publisher and every agency to invest into working their backlists and their subrights.

What do you see as the biggest opportunities over the next few years streaming services being one possible example? 

Agencies need to embrace global cooperation among themselves. I would welcome anyone who wants to join in. Since you mention streaming services: whatever one thinks of their value, they will generate an overwhelming stream of micro payments to authors and other copyright owners. The providers of these services have huge resources to develop smart software. Agencies, even the biggest firms, are tiny in comparison to Spotify and Amazon. How will we manage and verify those monthly royalty reports? Most agencies run on digital infrastructure from the eighties, each an island, entire of itself. If we want to concentrate on managing talent and on protecting authors’ copyrights we need to master technology, develop open source standards and invest into great software. Being a crowd of small firms, we can only achieve that by working together.

Sebastian Ritscher owns and runs Mohrbooks Literary Agency (Zurich). He joined the firm in 1989. He and his team of 10 represent German rights for a list of leading US and UK based agencies and publishers. Sebastian has an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Zurich. He takes a strong interest in the digital dimension of agenting, and in cooperative platforms. He is the co-founder of Rightsdesk, a global licensing platform. Contact: sebastian.ritscher@mohrbooks.com