Astri von Arbin Ahlander is not your average 29-year-old. She’s also not your average literary agent. Having moved back and forth between the U.S. and her native Sweden throughout her life, she returned to Stockholm to launch the Ahlander Agency in 2012. It has had an auspicious debut.
Ahlander put herself on the map when she sold Joakim Zander’s debut thriller, The Swimmer, to Harper, in a seven-figure deal shortly before the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair. Since then, the small agency, which now includes one other staffer, has been continuing to garner attention, as Ahlander makes an international name for herself with a small list of Scandinavian authors.
Bilingual in Swedish and English, Ahlander feels she brings a unique perspective to agenting because of her background. Born in Sweden, she moved to the U.S. at seven and went back to Sweden for junior high and high school. She returned to the U.S. for her college and graduate school, attending Middlebury College, and then Columbia’s M.F.A. program. Identifying as someone who “comes from a very American background,” she thinks this directly shapes how she does business.
When Ahlander had the idea of hanging her own shingle in Stockholm, she found that the local approach to agent-ing was significantly different than the model the States. At that time, most Swedish authors did not have agents functioning independently from their publishers (as they do in America). Instead, Ahlander explained, a lot of the agencies in Sweden were “rights centers” that were part of the publishing houses. “What I wanted to do was start something new and independent, and work more in an American way,” she said. One key to her approach is keeping her list small, in part so she can invest heavily in each project. Ahlander currently represents six authors (though one is actually a trio collaborating on a project). To support each project, she creates full English translations, investing time and money up front. (The more standard approach, for foreign publishers/agents taking a project out in English-language markets, is to present a portion of the work in translation.) Why bother? Ahlander believes the full translations give her authors a better shot of being acquired in the U.S. While European publishers are more willing to buy books that have a dedicated readership in the author’s home country, Ahlander thinks American publishers want more than proof of strong domestic sales and “a very short sample” of the book.
While The Swimmer has now sold in 28 countries, Ahlander has been busy with other projects. At the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair, she was shopping a buzzed-about novel called I’m Traveling Alone by a Norwegian author, writing under the pen name Samuel Bjork; the work sold in the U.S., after the fair, to Viking, in a two-book deal.
Ahlander went to the recent Bologna Book Fair with a 10-book middle-grade series called PAX, written by two Scandinavian authors—Asa Larsson and Ingela Korsell—and illustrated by DC Comics artist Henrik Jonsson. The series, which has been sold so far in Catalan, Hebrew, and Norwegian, borrows from Nordic mythology; its a story about two young boys growing up in the foster care system. The project, Ahlander noted, came to her before last year’s London Book Fair. At the time, it was conceived as a series, but only the first installment was written. She convinced the authors to take more time with the project before she started shopping it. Ahlander knew that she could close a quick sale in Sweden, since the authors were well established there, but she wanted to take the project out to an international audience. With that in mind, she felt having two books completed, and the “internal logic for the world” fully mapped out, would help make the series enticing to a broader range of publishers.
At this week’s London Book Fair, Ahlander will be shopping projects that, while lacking the worldwide commercial appeal of several of her recent works, are still in her wheelhouse. She’ll be selling foreign rights to a literary short story collection called Karate Chop, by Dorthe Nors, which Graywolf translated from Danish and published in the U.S. in February (PW gave it a starred review). She will also be going out with a new work by Nors—a novella called Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, which was published in Denmark last year. Ahlander said the work is “experimental”—it’s written entirely in one-sentence paragraphs—but not so much so that it will turn people off.
That Nors’s more literary work is right at home at the Ahlander Agency speaks to the breadth of its list. Ahlander said her list is very “taste driven,” and her tastes run the gamut—from international crime thrillers to middle-grade series and quiet literary novels—because, she said, ultimately, it’s about what’s on the page. “What I’m interested in is a really good story, originally told.”