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12 December 2022

Interview with Chiara Tognetti (Chiara Tognetti Rights Agency)

Paolo Grossi

Chiara Tognetti is an Italian foreign rights agent with over fourteen years’ experience in rights management and international children’s literature. She is the founder of Chiara Tognetti Rights Agency, an agency focussing on representing international book rights  primarily from Asia and Italy. 


How did you come to work as a literary agent?

After my university studies in South Asian languages, literature and cultures, I knew I wanted a career that would bring together my interest in cultural diversity and my passion for children’s books and illustration. When I got my first role as a Foreign Rights Assistant at HarperCollins Children’s Books, I realised that the international rights business was my place in the publishing world. A couple of years later, I joined the rights team at Walker Books where I stayed for ten intensely formative years. At the start of 2021, I moved on to found Chiara Tognetti Rights Agency, with the objective of offering international access to a highly curated list of outstanding children’s, young adult, and crossover books from various publishers. My agency focuses on representing the foreign rights of titles from Italy (Pulce Edizioni and Pane e Sale, and select projects in collaboration with Ghirigori Agency) and Asia (Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan and Singapore), and I also represent Australian and Scandinavian titles on the Italian market. 


Which areas of publishing is your agency most dedicated to?

The core of my agency is picture books, but my portfolio also includes board books and early readers, middle grade, young adult and crossover fiction and non-fiction. I also have a growing list of comics and graphic novels from Asia for all reading-age groups. 


In light of your experience, what trends do you see emerging in these sectors?

With the pandemic, the picture-book market has suffered from a degree of saturation. Publishers invested in reprints of backlist titles and tried-and-tested authors, and so new acquisitions slowed down. Freight disruption and, more recently, high production costs have made the illustrated-book market even more challenging as publication schedules suffered significant delays and cuts. However, from a broader perspective, the picture-book market has held on strongly over the past decades and has in fact grown in size – and quality. International publishers are very selective in their search for pre-school books: they are looking for curated illustrations, a strong narrative, and imaginative formats. Picture books and board books must have the child at the very centre, and this means books that are beautiful, non-didactic, engaging, and relevant to the child’s perspective. In a constantly growing trend, Italian publishers are now exporting the rights for their titles more actively than ever, either through their own rights office or through rights agents. To sell foreign rights successfully, I think it’s crucial for publishers to keep the international market in mind, and not just the local market, when creating their books. Speaking of trends, I must of course mention the explosion of graphic novels and comics, which I have also seen reflected in the growing demand for the mangas, manhwas and graphic novels in my portfolio. Many publishing houses have set up dedicated imprints, big groups have acquired graphic novel labels, and publishers who have been in the sector for years have seen their sales skyrocket. It’s hard to foresee how long the trend will last but, as usual, once the initial excitement fizzles out, quality will mark the difference between the players who make it and those who don’t. 


There is a domestic market and there is an international market: how are these two different activities divided in the agency?

As a rights agent, I don’t represent authors directly into their local market. I focus exclusively on selling rights internationally, although I may occasionally represent a project that is still unpublished. My main markets for Italian books are the US, France, Germany and Spain, but I see huge potential in Eastern Europe, Brazil and Latin America. My relationships with foreign publishers are crucial to my representation strategy. The better I know a publishing company and the editors within it, the more tailored my submissions become. I often spot-pitch titles in a moment of inspiration, like when I read a book and think “this would be perfect for such and such”. 


How much of your work is dedicated to scouting or searching for new authors?

At the beginning of my career, I interned at Louise Allen Jones scouts in London and compiled reader’s reports for other scouts as a freelancer. I was very keen on the idea of scouting a territory for top books, but the fast-pace of that work didn’t suit me (how do you do it, scout friends?). However, I brought some of that approach into my agency’s work. I am always scouting for new, exciting titles to take on, for hidden gems in the catalogues of the publishers I represent; I also try to stay on top of any market news for the books in my portfolio that may resonate abroad, and make sure I strategically push titles not just based on publication date but also on what the markets are most receptive to at any given time. 


What are some of your thoughts about the new grants for the translation of Italian books into foreign languages, offered by Cepell?

Over my decade at Walker Books, I didn’t realise how much easier it is to sell foreign rights to books that are originally written in English. When I started my agency with the aim of bringing more diverse books to the rights market, I underestimated how challenging it would be to sell rights for a book written in a language the acquiring editor (usually) can’t read, and which often carried higher translation costs into the P&L. It’s been a steep learning curve but I’ve built the experience to navigate this issue, prioritising projects for translation sampling and advising acquiring publishers on translation grant opportunities. I realised what a huge difference English sales material, translation samples and grants make when I started representing the Scandinavian agency Rights & Brands in Italy and in the English market. By default, Rights and Brands provide full (or at least partial) sample translations for consideration, and once the deal is closed, publishers can then apply for generous translation and production grants from to translate their publications. While I usually focus on representing Italian board books and picture books, where translation costs are minimal, the times when I do handle the occasional fiction publication, the availability of translation grants through Cepell certainly makes it much easier for foreign publishers to open up to Italian content.  It’s a pity that foreign publishers can’t apply directly; Italian publishers or agents must apply on their behalf, which makes the process less oriented towards the international market. Perhaps this will change in future, but in the meantime, we’re here to help!