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The Crime Lady: Dark Tales, Revisited
Dear TCL Readers:
This newsletter is a little different. It republishes my June 12, 2011 article for The Daily, a long-defunct News Corp. publication that was exclusively available on the iPad, about the Swedish literary agent Niclas Salomonsson. The publication ceased to exist the following year and took down its archives. I’m making my piece available for historical purposes, and to provide additional context and background on recent speculation that Salomonsson was the subject of an investigative documentary by Swedish public television broadcaster SVT that has been postponed indefinitely because of ongoing legal threats.
Though I was interviewed for the SVT documentary, I cannot comment on the allegations as described in the March 14 letter sent by Salomonsson’s counsel, Johan Eriksson, to SVT. (The journalist who interviewed me, Axel Gordh Humlesjö, told me they “hope to publish later this year.”) I also stand by my reporting in 2011, which drew on original interviews as well as prior reporting by Swedish outlets. The piece is reprinted as it was originally published, without alterations or updates.
The troubled path of Niclas Salomonsson, giant of the Scandinavian crime world
Niclas Salomonsson cuts a charming figure: dark hair hanging loosely down his back, chiseled cheekbones, a casually elegant manner that fits right in at New York City’s Soho House. The 35-year-old founder and head of the Salomonsson Agency, a literary firm for Scanadinavian writers, has ample reason to be in good spirits. It was summed up by a phone call he took in the middle of our conversation a few weeks ago.
He apologized profusely, but one doesn’t let Sonny Mehta, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, go to voicemail. Mehta and Knopf Doubleday (a subsidiary of Random House) have done serious business with the Salomonsson Agency — “about 26 or 27 titles,” Salomonsson estimated. And one of those deals was the reason for Salomonsson’s New York visit. Two nights earlier, the Norwegian thriller writer Jo Nesbø had given a reading of an excerpt from his seventh Harry Hole novel, “The Snowman,” and the day before that, Nesbø had landed on the New York Times bestseller list. Nesbø has been dubbed “the next Stieg Larsson,” but the comparison only holds water because they share a publisher. (Larsson never had a literary agent.)
It took several years for Salomonsson to persuade Nesbø to sign with the agency. In 2000, he purchased a copy of Nesbø’s latest novel and retreated to a bar near his apartment. “I read the first five pages and said, ‘This writer is superb.’ I didn’t finish the beer, or even the book! I only needed a few pages to know this was something special.” Salomonsson then met the unagented Nesbø, already a big seller in Scandinavia and Germany, in Oslo for lunch. “I thought we really connected; it was an amazing lunch,” Salmonsson said. “He was going to think about it. I couldn’t help myself and gave him a big hug. In the middle of the street in Oslo.” This awkward embrace didn’t stop Nesbø, who eventually signed with Salmonsson in 2003 and has remained with the agency ever since. “Jo is very loyal, both to his publishing houses and to people who look out for his best interests,” said the agent.
Nesbø’s series, featuring a hard-drinking, idiosyncratic detective with authority issues, has sold steadily but slowly in the United States. Salomonsson felt it was time to make a move, and he knew the man to approach: “I contacted Sonny because [Knopf Doubleday] know how to publish translated and crime fiction. I felt that HarperCollins was a great house, but not right for Jo.” Mehta’s interest was piqued, but on one condition: There could not be an auction. It had to be an exclusive submission. His wish was granted, and Nesbø moved publishers. Sales of his previous three books improved. And on June 9 in Norway, Salomonsson had more to celebrate, as Nesbø’s newest thriller, “The Phantom,” was launched to rave reviews in Scandinavia.
But beneath the surface, hard feelings remain. Nesbø’s success, it turns out, came with a price.
Salomonsson’s entry into publishing was atypical. He was a 23-year-old video store clerk who “fell in love with one of the customers, a writer,” in 1999. Sweden was a relatively small market at the time. Writers often sold their work directly to publishers, without an agent. Salomonsson’s then-girlfriend wasn’t making much of a living, and he thought he could do better for her. Over the next 18 months, he tracked approximately 10,000 global publishers doing business at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the book industry’s largest trade show.
His agency now represents approximately 40 writers, including a who’s who of Scanadinavian thriller writers: Rosslund and Hellstrom, Anne Holt and Liza Marklund, to name a few. Nearly every American publisher has its pet Scandinavian crime writer, and most come from Salomonsson’s stable. “It wasn’t as if I started out by saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to start a big literary agency,’” Salomonsson explained. “But sometimes it’s good when you don’t know too much about what you’re getting into.”
Despite Salomonsson’s admirable success, however, another story lies beneath the surface, beginning with the woman who became his real point of entry into the publishing world.
Unni Drougge was 42, author of two novels, mother of five, and fresh from an abusive marriage. Salomonsson was 23. They met at a cocktail party and were living together in Stockholm the following year. It was a stormy relationship. In mid-February 2000, the same year the Salomonsson Agency opened, he was arrested for aggravated assault. (The case was dropped when Drougge refused to press charges.)
Two months later, police showed up at their home. According to a police report taken at the time, Drougge’s face and body showed considerable signs of violence, including a large bruise under her chin, a black eye, several large bruises along her left arm and two bite marks on her left cheek. The report also says that Salomonsson threatened to kill Drougge and to bite off her face. Salomonsson was convicted in 2001 of assault and uttering threats against Drougge. Prosecutors pressed for jail time, but Drougge implored the court to be lenient. He was instead sentenced to 70 hours of community service. Afterward, the relationship continued as the agency grew in size and scope.
They broke up in 2005. Two years later, Drougge published an autobiographical novel about her relationship with Salomonsson, “Boven i mitt drama kallas kärlek” (“The Villain of My Romantic Drama”). An ugly private matter turned very, very public. Controversy raged in Sweden as Drougge detailed what she described as “seven years of unending hell” with a man who, she wrote, abused her repeatedly over the course of their relationship. One of Salomonsson’s clients, the internationally bestselling historical writer Jan Guillou (and part-owner of Piratförlaget, publisher of Drougge’s earlier novels), publicly accused her of lying and threatened to sue. Drougge in turn wrote an op-ed for Svenska Dagbladets, quoting from medical and police reports drawn up when Salomonsson was arrested in 2000. Rival camps formed and the literary community became polarized.
When The Daily asked Drougge why she chose to write the book as a novel, not a memoir, she said she wanted the book to be “a piece of art.” She didn’t want to be afraid of repercussions. She wanted to include other points of view. Fiction gave her more freedom than a memoir ever could.
Salomonsson’s editorial appeared in Svenska Dagbladets three days after his former partner’s piece. He characterized Drougge as a liar and a neglectful mother, and said that after his arrest, “I never laid a hand on her, or anyone else for that matter. I cut down sharply on drinking and started going to therapy … Had you crossed the line as completely as I had done to my girlfriend, there’s one thing you want more than anything else: to make amends to her. And I did what I could.” Drougge responded one last time on her website, defending her book and her assertions once more, after which she said “this was the final word on the matter.” Nearly four years later, she usually declines to talk about Salomonsson to the media. When she received The Daily’s interview request, she needed the moral support of a friend to answer it and agree to speak. “My life is good now, but there is still trauma,” Drougge said. “I try not to think about the past very much.”
The fallout caused the Salomonsson Agency to lose several clients, all of them women. “I do not want in the end [to] be represented by a person [whom] people are afraid and reluctant to work with,” crime writer Inger Frimansson told reporters at the time. The agency’s CEO and Salomonsson’s business partner, Emma Tibblin, also left abruptly. A lawsuit she filed in October 2008 against her former employer shed light on why: According to various news reports, Tibblin told Salomonsson in October 2007 that she was pregnant, which caused Salomonsson to become enraged, accusing Tibblin of putting her needs before those of the agency. When Tibblin tried to say something in her defense, Salomonsson slammed his fist on the table and shouted, “Are you f***ing stupid?,” continuing to swear as he rushed toward where she was seated. Tibblin fled the office, returning the following day with her resignation letter, only to be forcibly escorted from the premises.
In her lawsuit, Tibblin claimed she wasn’t paid severance guaranteed by the contract she signed. The suit was settled for an undisclosed sum. Tibblin started her own agency, the Stilton Agency, representing a number of writers who left SA. (Tibblin did not respond to requests for comment.)
Months passed before another virtual bomb dropped: Liza Marklund, arguably Sweden’s best-selling crime writer ever and another part-owner of Piratförlaget, became a client of the Salomonsson Agency. The newspaper Aftonbladet published a signed editorial from more than 20 female writers titled, “How Could You, Liza?,” wondering how Marklund, who had publicly campaigned against domestic violence, could sign with Salomonsson. Marklund refused to explain her decision. Drougge still finds it impossible to understand. “She staked her reputation on writing about the abuse of women,” Drougge told The Daily. “And for her to do this, almost with a smile on her face, was so shocking. Just unbelievable.”
In a piece published Nov. 14, 2007, by Svensk Bokhandel, Sweden’s book trade industry publication, editor-in-chief Lasse Winkler called attention to Salmonsson’s “poor reputation” in Europe. The piece claimed that Salomonsson had engaged in “questionable work practices,” including “rigged auctions and the misrepresentation of circulation figures.” There were also charges of unethical behavior, “as exemplified by moving authors from one publishing house to another without giving any prior notice to the company currently publishing the author’s material.”
“I don’t trust this guy,” said Alexander Schwarz, founder and former publisher of Signature in Holland and current editor-at-large for Querido. “What he may do is legal, but it’s unethical. Publishers invest a lot of money in their authors, and for him to just turn around and take his author to a new house without even giving the old one a chance to respond or offer more money is wrong.”
Schwarz speaks from experience. He had published two of Nesbø’s early novels, obtaining the rights from the thriller writer’s original Norwegian publisher, Aschehoug, which also represented him. Then, in 2005, Salomonsson called to say he was now representing the Norwegian writer and wanted to get a commitment from Signature to publish the next book in the series. Schwarz demurred, saying he wanted to wait until there were sales figures on the last book under contract. Months went by without a word. Then, at the Gothenburg Book Fair, Schwarz went to meet with Salomonsson, looked through the agency catalog and found, under Jo Nesbø’s name, that the Dutch rights to the next book were with a different house.
“How is this possible?” Schwarz remembered saying. Salomonsson claimed that when he couldn’t get in touch with Schwarz, it signified a lack of interest and thus a tacit agreement that he could shop the book elsewhere. Schwarz ended the meeting and refused to work with Salomonsson ever again. “I don’t care if he represents the biggest superstars. I won’t publish them.”
Salomonsson sued Winkler and Svensk Bokhandel in April 2008 for libel and for more than 150,000 kronor (about $24,000) in damages. The case did not go to trial until the fall of 2009. Schwarz testified on Winkler’s behalf. Anne Holt took the stand in her agent’s defense, as did Danish publisher Trina Buch, who said Salomonsson distinguishes himself “in a positive way” by working so hard for his authors.
After a trial that lasted three days, Winkler was acquitted on all defamation charges in December 2009. Salomonsson was ordered to pay more than 1.1 million kronor (or $180,000) in legal fees. “It feels good,” Winkler told reporters after the verdict came in. Salomonsson told Svensk Bokhandel he was “deeply disappointed” with the verdict.
The Salomonsson Agency’s sales grew by a third in 2007, and the agency has continued along the same growth pattern every year since. In an email June 10, Salomonsson characterized the period between 2007 and 2009 as “a very formative experience” for the agency. “The support we received from family, friends, authors and business partners was overwhelming, and this support is one of the keys to the agency’s success even today. It also helped develop both the dedication we have for each other and for our authors.” That period of time, he continued, “was not a high point for Swedish journalism. But I think it is important to remain focused and not become cynical.”
He stressed several times in our initial interview that his agency works together as a unit, and whatever publishers may think of him personally, many single out the efforts of his employees, especially Szilvia Molnar and Leyla Belle Drake. Days after Salomonsson and I spoke, the agency announced its latest American deal: the rights to Finnish author Antti Tuomainen’s “The Healer” for publisher Henry Holt. (Knopf elected to pass.) Later this year, Pantheon will publish books by crime writers Arne Dahl and Leif G.W. Persson.
But HarperCollins is still smarting over losing Jo Nesbø. The publisher also canceled a deal with another Salomonsson client, Sissel-Jo Gazan, this past March, which a spokeswoman said was due to editorial differences. (The company declined to comment further with respect to Nesbø’s departure.) And Persson is believed to be looking for new representation. “Maybe then he’ll talk about what Salomonsson is really like,” said a high-ranking source in Scandinavian publishing, who declined to be quoted because of Salomonsson’s ongoing business with the firm.
Yet Salomonsson revealed his truest emotions when he spoke of Scandinavian crime fiction’s founding couple, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. “When I took her on,” Salomonsson said of Sjöwall, 76 (her partner died in 1975), “it was so sad that all these Scandinavian writers were standing on their shoulders and making so much money, and yet she is living in a one-room apartment? It was my mission and obligation to set things right.” Salmonsson’s efforts have paid off: Sjöwall has new and better contracts in a number of countries, including the United States. Reissued editions of the 10-volume Martin Beck novels, originally published between 1965 and 1975 and published here by Vintage, have sold more than 600,000 copies over the past four years, drastically improving Sjöwall’s economic situation.
Who, then, is Niclas Salomonsson? The record requires careful parsing and putting one’s emotions aside. But it seems fitting that the story of Scandinavia’s most successful literary agency comes straight out of a crime novel he might represent — or an unwritten Stieg Larsson volume.
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