Interview with Cristina De Stefano, journalist, author and literary scout
How did you come to work as a scout? Can you tell us something about your work (your relations with agents, publishers, etc.)?
By chance, as often happens in life. I was a journalist for Elle (Italian edition) and I followed my husband who went to work in Paris. I continued working as a journalist and biography writer. One day, an Italian publishing house, Rizzoli, asked me if I wanted to become their scout, because the person in this role was retiring. I had never heard of this job. Intrigued, I decided to give it a try and I liked it right away. I am competitive and I love reading, so I was perfect for this role. Since that first attempt in 2004, I have acquired other clients in 15 countries, including the US and the UK, and in the film industry, including Netflix, and have set up an agency where three other people work full-time. My job as a scout – on the French and Italian markets – consists of keeping an eye on the market, reading all the books being published in the two countries and assessing their sales potential for translation into other languages. I receive pdfs from agents and publishers, prepare reading notes for my foreign clients and advise film and television producers on the adaptation of a novel. It is a very dynamic job, you never stop, a future best-seller may arrive for reading in the middle of summer, or on a Friday night. You have to be there and you have to read it before the other scouts.
Among your “discoveries” as a scout, are there any that have been particularly important to you?
The book that made me well known is undoubtedly La Verité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert by Joël Dicker. I immediately realised its enormous potential, long before it was published: I spent the night reading it and the next morning, still in my pyjamas, I called my foreign clients. Those who trusted me still have the novel in their catalogue: it is one of the best-selling translations in the history of contemporary French fiction. In Italy, I had the same intuition with Le otto montagne by Paolo Cognetti, which was a huge success in Italy and in translation, and from which an important film was made, presented at Cannes last year. But the list of authors I have discovered, in both languages, is much longer. In Italy, I was among the first to see the potential of Viola Ardone, Rosella Postorino, Luca d’Andrea and Sandrone Dazieri. In France, I spotted Leila Slimani and Hervé Le Tellier long before the Goncourt, and I saw Melissa da Costa‘s potential when she had not yet become one of the country’s ten best-selling authors. But strangely, one of the biggest best-sellers I discovered was a novel I had not read, because it was written in Japanese. I was intrigued by the subject matter – a cat who decides to enter a couple’s flat every day – and I told one of my clients in the UK about it: The Guest Cat was an outstanding success in translation.
In the light of your international view of the book world, what assessment do you think you can give of the Italian publishing system from a European perspective?
Italy is one of the most reactive countries on the translation rights market, where auctions are very fierce. It is a country that reads little but publishes (and translates) a lot. The good news is that Italy is experiencing a very positive season, which started with the planetary success of Elena Ferrante, but which is going much further: thrillers, cosy crime, historical sagas, women’s novels – Italian books are popular abroad and often surprise at fairs in London or Frankfurt. The Italian publishing system is characterised by a large number of small publishers, who do a very dynamic job of selecting new titles, and by literary agents who discover and value their authors. Compared to ten years ago, I have noticed that half of my contracts concern Italian books, whereas in the past it was France that prevailed.
A writer’s success in his own country does not immediately translate into success abroad. What “type” of writer sells well abroad? Those who are more strongly marked by their national origins (in other words, the more ‘Italian’ ones) or the more international ones?
This is one of the mysteries of publishing, and why it is such a fascinating profession. One cannot predict the success of a translation. Some authors sell a lot at home and not elsewhere, or only in certain countries. There are no rules. Why did Joël Dicker achieve a resounding success with a crime novel set in the United States? Why does Bernard Werber sell by the ton in Japan and not in Italy? Why is a best-seller like Valérie Perrin‘s Changer l’eau des fleurs huge in Italy but not in Germany or Spain? And what about La saga dei Florio by Stefania Auci, a best-seller in Italy (and in France, with my client) but which has not sold well in other countries? Why did Le otto montagne enjoy its greatest success in Holland, where there is not a single mountain? My job is like that of a poker player. You have to “feel” a story, its strength, its characters. That’s the only thing that counts. The rest is theory and fashion, but it is never a guarantee of success.
Do you pay particular attention to literary prizes for unpublished works (such as the Calvino Prize in Italy) or to first novel festivals (Laval, Chambéry, Cuneo, etc.)?
I follow the Calvino Prize, to identify new voices, but not the festivals. For some time, I have been keeping an eye on the end-of-course days of the Holden School in Turin, which year after year churns out successful authors: Beatrice Salvioni and Monica Acito, to name but two new voices recently published in Italy. I also follow social media in both countries. But in general, the source of manuscripts is always an agent or a publisher who has decided to launch a book and sends me the pdf for evaluation. As for French prizes, the only authoritative one on the foreign market is the Goncourt.
When reading becomes a professional occupation, how much time is left for the free pleasure of reading and/or re-reading?
Very little time, it is the only negative aspect – along with the decline in my eyesight due to reading on tablets – of my job, which I love. As a free reader, I read history books, particularly history of religions, a genre I don’t come in contact with much in my job as a scout. I keep them for the evening, a few pages before going to bed, and especially for the two-to-three-week holiday in the summer: then it’s a party. Then I only read what I want. Re-reading, on the other hand, is part of my work, and I often re-read a book that I have launched myself after its publication, to evaluate the editing work.