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Monday, 14 February 2011

Abner Stein Obituary by Andrew Franklin, MD Profile Books Ltd

Many of you will be aware of the sad passing of Abner Stein recently. Andrew Franklin, managing director and founder of Profile Books Ltd, wrote the following obituary for Mr Stein below. Originally published in The Bookseller, I have been graciously granted permission to post on my blog this celebration of Mr Stein's achievements and heartfelt dedication. Without further ado, I leave you with Mr Franklin's article:


Abner Stein, who died last month at the age of 72, ran his eponymous literary agency for 40 years, with brilliant skill and flawless efficiency.  Outside the book trade he was almost invisible; he deliberately kept a low profile, eschewing publicity and having no truck with agents who put themselves in front of their authors.  But he was celebrated and universally trusted throughout the book trade in London and New York.

Though he despised the term, he was the original super-agent with an unmatched list of authors including, among many others:  Dan Brown, John Grisham, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Elizabeth Luard, Sue Grafton, Raymond Feist, Jonathan Safran Foer, Peter Mayle and David Baldacci.  It is impossible to count, but over the last 40 years the Abner Stein Agency must have had more number one bestsellers than any other literary agency in London.

The Abner Stein Agency was, and remains, unique amongst London literary agents because although the agency always had a small number of cherished personal clients, including Michael Herr and Don McCullin, Abner Stein was the ultimate sub-agent, peerlessly representing international, primarily American, authors in London.  Abner was exactly the right man at the right time as reading tastes globalised and have continued to do so.

An American by birth, Abner never lost his deep New York drawl.  He was head-hunted to London in 1964 as a paperback publisher and intuitively understood the mass market, which is why he did such a superb job for his commercial authors.  American agents looking to place their authors in the UK, turned to Abner, who was meticulously efficient, utterly discreet, and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of what was being published and by whom.

The volume of books going through the agency was, and still is, staggering.  Every editor in the UK is familiar with the efficient Abner Stein emails but until the internet Abner had to employ a retired milkman to deliver the manuscripts all around London every morning.  His agency must be the only one to have sold books to every single editor and publishing house from the giants to the microscopic, because no stone was left unturned on behalf of authors large or small.

But amongst the huge volume of manuscripts, sometimes too American or too small ever to find a home here, there were the books destined to become great bestsellers or literary landmarks, and often both.  Abner had an unfailing nose for standout books.  And editors would be put on standby to expect the book that might define their career by a morning phone call and a personal letter.  These letters, now famous, were not created by word processor or computer, they were hand-typed by Abner on his wonky typewriter, notable for its misaligned capital S (not an unimportant letter for Mr Stein).  When you got one of these letters you knew it was a book which Abner, with his unerring eye for the author that would break out, wanted you to take very seriously.  The other two manuscripts you had had that week could wait.

Big auctions often followed the hand-typed notes, but Abner was notable for the absolute fairness and the integrity with which he conducted business.  In a long career there was never even a whisper of a short-cut, a favour to a friend or anything that could compromise his authors’ interests.  And the result: one of the most efficient, trusted and successful agencies, but never one in the limelight.

And despite, perhaps because of, his absolute fairness, Abner made fierce, longstanding and loyal friendships throughout publishing.  Always laconic and thoughtful, a steady stream of editors sought his calm advice at times of trouble.  No one was more generous when people lost their jobs.  And a visit to the agency - first in Battersea, then the Old Vicarage, Camberwell, and for the last 30 years, at 10 Roland Gardens, SW7, - was mandatory for every editor at the beginning of their commissioning careers.

Abner was the last, the greatest, of the publishing lunchers.  Lunch with him was never less than a three-bottle affair, often with an aperitif before and a digestive or two after.  Afternoon appointments were invariably cancelled and often one did not (could not) make it back to the office at all that day.  Publishing at its best is a personal business, and the relationships forged and cemented at lunch were pivotal to Abner Stein.  But no matter how much was consumed, business never suffered and when one struggled back to the office the next day a fax or email would be on one’s desk confirming the deal terms discussed.  Inevitably, such a lifestyle took its toll on Abner’s health and he died far too young.  But he made sure to leave the agency in superb shape, brilliantly managed by Caspian Dennis, Sandy Violette and the younger of his two daughters, Arabella Stein.

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