Paul Marsh: Literary agent who led the way in the sale of rights to authors' work on the international market
Tuesday 18 August 2009
The international literary agent Paul Marsh was celebrated for selling British and international authors around the world and ensuring they were published in many languages. Most authors, and literary novelists in particular, cannot make a living from their domestic sales alone, so they depend heavily on international sales. Paul Marsh was one of the key players in this globalisation of literary culture. He was the consummate broker, linking authors and publishers across a Babel of languages, a charming and energetic promoter of an international culture of books.
Paul Marsh was born in 1952 in east London, one of the two sons of Ricky Marsh, foreign editor of the Daily Telegraph, so perhaps his passion for sharing ideas internationally came early. He was educated at Dulwich College and sold fruit and veg in Frankfurt ("very obst and gemusing," he would say) before going to Peterhouse College, Cambridge, where he read English. He went on to perfect his German at Göttingen University and his languages, which included French and Italian, were invaluable in selling rights internationally.
Marsh's career in books began when he joined Anthony Sheil Associates as a junior assistant in 1977, but he was promoted extraordinarily rapidly to foreign rights director in 1979, and subsequently negotiated an innovative joint venture, Marsh & Sheil Ltd, to sell international rights. In 1994 he took the bold step of setting up the Marsh Agency with his wife, Susanna Nicklin, as international book-rights specialists.
Because English is the dominant global language and the American economy the largest in the world, New York is the epicentre of world publishing. But, oddly perhaps, American agents and publishers have always been so inward-looking and focused on the North American market that London, not New York, is the world capital of translation and international deals. It is not by chance that the London Book Fair is styled an "international fair" to which agents and publishers come from all over the world, while the American Book Expo is primarily for American booksellers. Marsh, a hugely cosmopolitan man and natural European, was one of a handful of players who ensured that London remained an essential place of pilgrimage for publishers and agents.
His agency represented a dazzling array of writers including Kate Atkinson, Bill Bryson, Jonathan Safran Foer, Margaret Forster, Desmond Morris, Vikram Seth and Ben Okri. He sold Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize in 1997 into 35 languages including Indonesian, Catalonian, Macedonian and Icelandic. Another example: he sold Meg Cabot's frothy The Princess Diaries into 35 languages including Thai, Sinhalese and Ukrainian. And what can they have made of Sue Townsend's satire of Thatcherite Britain, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, in Slovakia, Galicia or the Basque country?
There cannot be a written language in the world (or at least one that has at least one publisher) where the Marsh Agency doesn't operate, sell rights and generate deals. In some sophisticated markets, like Germany or the Netherlands, the agency runs tough auctions running into tens, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of euros. Others have just a handful of publishers, little more than printers really, selling a few hundred copies of each title they publish. To carry the torch of literature to these extraordinarily diverse places required a global sensibility, generosity of spirit, calm negotiating skills, a robust sense of humour and immense patience. Something else too: great stamina to endure the constant travel, annual cycle of book fair and publisher visits. Most of all, it needed Marsh's belief in the importance of literature as a force to bring people together around the world, with shared ideas and imagination. Globalisation is often characterised as making the world duller and more homogenous, but literature, shared across languages, restores colour and variety.
Very often the publisher signing up the book to publish locally cannot read the language. If this is the case, they have to buy the rights on trust, perhaps paying many times more than their own salary. This was the secret of Marsh's success. He was not endlessly aggressive (and rude) in the style of the Hollywood celebrity agents. He had an English understatedness and quiet authority based on thoughtful literary judgement rather than pushiness or hype. He was always keener to do the deal and see the book well published and sold in bookshops than to extract the last ounce of blood. As a result he was respected hugely on the international publishing scene and the agency grew rapidly, acquiring the Paterson Agency with all the global copyrights for the Sigmund Freud estate in 2000 and, in 2006, Campbell Thompson & McLaughlin, whose estates included Eric Ambler, Nicholas Monsarrat and Gavin Maxwell. He recruited wisely, making the agency a wonderfully cosmopolitan place, where people stay for years.
Paul Marsh was in Milan visiting Italian publishers when he succumbed to a pulmonary embolism. He is survived by his second wife, Susanna Nicklin, with whom he founded the agency and who went on to become Director of English PEN and is now, complementing Marsh's work taking books around the world, the Director of Literature for the British Council.
Paul Henry Marsh, international literary agent: born London 30 October 1952; married firstly Angela Astor, (died 1997, one son, two daughters), secondly Susanna Nicklin (one son, one daughter); died Milan 5 July 2009.
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