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13 September 2023

Interview with Emanuela Canali, co-owner of the Tizian & Canali literary agency

Paolo Grossi

How did you decide to become a literary agent?


For me, it’s actually a return to my roots. One of my first professional experiences was at ALI, founded by Erich Linder, which was one of the few Italian literary agencies at the time. I then moved on to Adelphi and then Mondadori, where for many years I was foreign sales for Italian authors.


Compared to when you started out in the publishing world, how has the situation of authors changed? There was a time when few writers had an agent. Why is it almost essential nowadays?


It’s true: unlike the English-speaking markets, where it was unthinkable to do without an agent, the agent was not as common here. The situation has changed radically with the gradual change in the structure of publishing houses, which are devoting fewer internal resources to finding new authors and providing editorial support. At Mondadori, until a few years ago, I remember that there was an office responsible for reading and evaluating manuscripts; its specific task was to recommend manuscripts worthy of interest to the publishers concerned and to reject those that were not suitable with two polite lines. When an author was then taken on, it was up to a publisher to follow him or her through the editing and preparation of the text.
However, what struck me most in the first few months of my new role was the dizzying increase in the number of proposals; the reduction in internal resources has created new room for manoeuvre for the agencies, which are given the task of introducing the author to the publishing world, which in turn asks the agent to do a sort of initial screening. There are also a growing number of agencies that help authors with the editing of their texts.


A writer’s success at home does not immediately translate into success abroad. In your experience, what kind of writer sells well abroad? is more strongly marked by national origins (in other words, is more Italian) or is more international?


A certain ‘Italian’ characterisation that borders on folklore (the South, good food, love and the mandolin) can still hold sway abroad, especially in the case of more commercial novels. I remember, however, that my greatest sales successes abroad were achieved by two authors (Paolo Giordano and Alba de Céspedes) who were far removed from this stereotype, and whose undeniable talent and powerful authenticity of voice in tackling universal themes (the malaise of youth, in the case of one, and the condition of women, in the case of the other) were recognised the world over. And they have enjoyed great success despite the fact that the former was a beginner and the latter an author from the 1950s who ha practically disappeared.


How important is the search for new authors, otherwise known as scouting, to your agency?


The search for new authors is an essential part of the life of an agency, especially today when evaluation is not always based solely on the quality of the text and when we have to take account of a market in the throes of change. You only have to look at the prize lists: people increasingly want to escape, to dream, to their minds, and this seems to be one of the reasons for the success of romance novels and light non-fiction. Press promotion is no longer done through the channels of the past, i.e. the press offices, but social media are becoming increasingly important, so authors with an IG or TikTok profile are more likely to sell than traditional authors. that the data that publishing houses are looking at more and more (ah, the power of marketing agencies!) is sales data, and very few books manage to sell more than a thousand copies. It is therefore all the more necessary to make a very strict and meticulous selection to works that have a chance of being seen and read. There’s no room for defeatism, but a certain amount of vigilance is called for.


What do you think of public subsidies for translating Italian books into foreign languages? (I’m referring in particular to those provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the more recently created Cepell (Centre for Books and Reading – Ministry of Culture).


Italy’s efforts over the last few years to bring itself into line with all the other European countries, which – let me remind you – have had a tried and tested system of aid for translation in place for much longer, can only be appreciated. It seems to me that Italian institutions have become aware of the importance of subsidies for the dissemination of Italian authors throughout the world, and that they are acting with greater determination. All initiatives in this direction are therefore welcome, and I even hope that they will operate in an even more united way and with even more subsidies.

Emanuela Canali