Interview with Claire Sabatié-Garat (The Italian Literary Agency)
Claire Sabatié-Garat was born in Paris and has lived in Italy since 1998. She began her career in publishing at Gallimard Jeunesse. Later, she worked at Tallandier as an editor and editorial assistant for history books. From 1999 to 2001, she was responsible for publications at the French Academy – Villa Medici in Rome. In September 2001 she started working as a literary agent with Marco Vigevani and since 2006 she has been a partner of the agency. In 2015, The Italian Literary Agency was born from the merger between Agenzia Letteraria Internazionale, Luigi Bernabò Associates and Marco Vigevani & Associati, Agenzia Letteraria, of which she is the managing director and partner.
How did you come to work as a literary agent?
After a degree in English and a doctorate in medieval history from the University of Nanterre in Paris and La Sapienza in Rome, I left Paris and moved first to Rome and then to Milan. I have always been an avid reader and a lover of the publishing world. In France, I worked at Gallimard Jeunesse, at Les Echos and at Tallandier. In Italy, at the French Academy in Rome, I was in charge of publications and contemporary artists, before I met Marco Vigevani and started working with him as a literary agent, a profession in which I could build on my past experience, an international profile, a natural love for reading, and an interest for the varied aspects of this profession.
Compared to your early years in publishing, how has the situation changed for authors? In the past, only a few writers had an agent. Why has it become indispensable today?
Indeed, the situation has changed a lot. When I started working in publishing, only a few authors had an agent and, in Italy, agencies could be counted on one hand (for several decades, the most important agency had been Agenzia Letteraria Internazionale founded by Augusto Foà in 1898, later directed by his son Luciano and more recently by Erich Linder). In general, the literary agent was a more common professional role in the Anglo-Saxon market. In Europe, many agencies worked as co-agents for publishers or foreign agents. But the role of the lead agent, who directly represents his or her authors and follows them from the idea of the project to the sale and promotion of rights, has become established over time.
Twenty years ago, the market was very different, as was the structure of publishing houses. Today, the number of titles published per year has increased dramatically, publishing groups have grown, but also many independent publishing houses have emerged and established themselves. The publishing industry is in the midst of an accelerated and comprehensive transformation, affecting the creative, technological, marketing and distribution aspects of the sector… and authors have to navigate between a large number of interlocutors and different forms of commercialisation and rights.
As an intermediary between the author and the publishing house, the agent is the author’s first point of contact: he or she reads, advises, keeps abreast of developments and experiments with new forms of communication to offer clients a reliable point of reference in a constantly evolving field.
In Europe, France seems to be an exception: why do you think a close relationship between the author and the publisher still seems to be predominant in this country?
France seems to be an exception because the structure of publishing houses is still quite traditional, with real reading committees formed by in-house members, but also external consultants (writers, intellectuals, translators) who research, evaluate, select, and provide guidance to new authors and new voices on their way to publication. The relationship between author and publisher has thus remained very integrated.
But even in France, the situation is changing, and more recently several literary agencies have emerged to represent French authors as main agents. The structure of the French market is undergoing deep changes with likely mergers and acquisitions between groups, thus creating a distance in the relationship between author and publisher. Finally, the secondary rights market has grown considerably: paperbacks, audio-visual renditions, and foreign markets, where agents can offer interesting perspectives.
The Italian Literary Agency counts among its authors a few eminent names, at the forefront of the Italian literary scene. Some of them have been through different agencies. How do you “win” an author’s trust, to the point of convincing them to change agents?
Many established authors have been working with us for many years, others have come to us after publishing several books without being represented by an agent, and others still approach us on following the advice of friends. I believe that the relationship between an author and their agent stems from mutual understanding and trust, focused care, and the ability to listen and guide, a kind of alchemy. In this sense, it is the author who comes to us because they feel the need to do so. In addition, our agency devotes a lot of attention to seeking new voices, a fundamental part of our work, to which we devote an extensive internal debate, with cross-readings, exchanges of opinions between professionals and agents of different ages, and with different tastes and interests.
There is a national market and there is an international market: how are these two different activities divided in the agency?
The national market has won over an important part of the sector: Italian authors are read, loved and known by Italian readers. The success of book fairs, literary festivals and various cultural events proves this and supports the circulation of books and their authors. In addition to Marco Vigevani and myself, several agents (Chiara Piovan, Mariavittoria Puccetti, Elisa Beretta and Valentina Balzarotti) work with Italian authors for the Italian market. There is also considerable interest in twentieth century classics with new editions and rediscoveries, and a great dynamism in the audio-visual rights market with the multiplication of contacts between Italian and international producers. In recent years, Italian authors have also made a name for themselves abroad among classics, great bestsellers, and masters of the genre (Italian thrillers, family sagas) and important voices of the literary and non-fiction landscape. We have a team dedicated to the promotion and sale of Italian authors’ rights abroad, with a vast network of international contacts and co-agents.
A writer’s success in his or her own country does not immediately translate into success abroad. What “type” of writer sells well abroad? The one who is more strongly marked by their national origins (in other words, the one who is more “Italian”) or the one who is more international?
The international success of an author is built in several stages: the sale of rights in different languages and the actual success and recognition of the author in the different countries, thanks to reviews, sales, and awards. Without all these elements, foreign sales might only concern one title and therefore be ephemeral. There cannot be a definition of the type of writer who sells well abroad, but certainly the strength of the plot, the uniqueness of the voice, are essential elements. The exploration of history that resonates in the present, the meticulous telling of an Italian reality, even niche, to talk about human relationships that have a universal dimension, are some of the interesting aspects of Italian books that are now translated all over the world, sometimes reaching more than 30 or 40 countries.
Success in the country of origin is important, but it is not enough, and there are authors who can sometimes be even more successful abroad than they are in Italy.
In the light of your experience, what trends do you see emerging in Italian fiction in recent years? Will genre literature continue to grow in importance?
In recent years, Italian fiction has seen a boost of high-quality production, which lies at the crossroads between crime fiction, thrillers, and popular fiction. Recently, romantic comedies from the sphere of social media have risen to the top of the bestseller list. Many authors have looked to the history, contradictions, and tragedies of the 20th century to better understand their present and the challenges of the future. Questions of identity and family relationships, and father figures, are also central to the plots of novels in recent years. When contemporary literature succeeds in capturing the spirit of the times, between dreams, disillusionment, and new challenges, and in telling it through a story, it can win over a large number of readers in Italy and abroad.