Interview with Carmen Prestìa (Alferj and Prestìa Literary Agency)
After a long experience in the field of buying and selling rights, first at the Einaudi publishing house in Turin and later at Newton Compton, Carmen Prestìa founded the literary agency Alferj e Prestìa together with Valentina Alferj, which stands out among Italian literary agencies for its special focus on the search for new authors.
How did you come to work as a literary agent?
After graduating in modern European foreign languages and literature at the University of Turin, I had the chance to join the Einaudi publishing house, first as an intern in the press office, then in the chief editor’s office, when Giulio Einaudi was still at the helm, and later as head of translation rights.
Before founding our agency, together with my partner, Valentina Alferj, I worked at the Newton Compton publishing house, dealing with the acquisition of Italian translation rights from abroad, and the transfer of all secondary rights of Italian authors (translations, film/TV, newspapers, etc.).
This two-fold experience gave me the necessary background and opened the opportunity for me to create a literary agency.
Compared to your early years in the publishing world, how has the situation of changed for authors? In the past, only a few writers had an agent. Why is it almost indispensable today?
The role of the agent is relatively only recent. Though the first Italian agency was founded in 1898 by Augusto Foà, it was not until Erich Linder came into the scene in 1946 that literary agencies grew and became structured, taking many Italian and foreign authors into the fold.
In Italy, it hasn’t been easy for agencies. The national press, even in 1996, defined literary agents as “obnoxious, odious, cumbersome, necessary”.
The work of the literary agent is complex and layered. The landing page on our website opens with the definition of the word agent:
Agent: a person or thing that takes an active role; doer, operator, executor.
A person or thing which brings about an effect, determines an action, a change to something.
Alferj e Prestia’s authors include some of the most important names in the Italian literary landscape. Some of them worked with different agencies. How do you gain an author’s trust, to the point of convincing him or her to change agents?
Our agency does not encourage this recently widespread pattern of persuading authors from other agencies to “move over” to us. However, when an author comes to us on their own accord because they are dissatisfied with the relationship with the agent who represents them, we try to understand, with them, what they feel were their shortcomings, to see whether there is real room for improvement by working together.
Finding new voices is my passion. And so is exploring, with established authors, the possibility to get them out of their comfort zone.
There is a national market and there is an international market: how do you divide these two different activities within the agency?
Within the agency, I specialise in selling translation rights to foreign markets, but I also deal with the domestic market and audio-visual adaptation rights. In a “boutique agency” such as ours, everyone needs to be able to do everything, be curious, and be up-to-date with changes that affect the industry, especially legislative.
A writer’s success at home does not immediately translate into success abroad. What ‘type’ of writer sells well abroad? A writer that is more strongly marked by its national origins (in other words, the one that is more “Italian”) or one that is more international?
Paradoxically, in spite of the fact that the watchword is “a plot with an international flavour”, the truth is that Italian authors’ great successes abroad come from beautifully portrayed stories, also – and especially – in terms of their geographical and local backdrop.
More than once, when I met with foreign publishers looking for new authors to translate, I was asked for stories set even in small villages, in places away from big cities.
At the same time, some Italian authors have created actual trends, where it is not uncommon to be asked for novels “like that one”, or “in the line of”…
In light of your experience, what trends do you see emerging in Italian fiction in recent years? Will genre literature continue to grow in importance?
I think genre will continue to gain importance, both in Italy and abroad. But what matters, more than definitions, more than the narrow confines in which, even for practical reasons, we all feel the need to classify stories, what matters above all is the power of a good story.
In 2021, the sale of translation rights accounted for 12% of new publishing output. In 2001, only 4% of published titles were found to be of interest by foreign publishers. I would say that this growing figure is significant, and allows us to work more dynamically and with greater awareness.