Interview with Fiammetta Biancatelli (Walkabout Literary Agency)
Fiammetta Biancatelli has a long experience in the publishing industry behind her and today runs Walkabout Literary Agency, one of the most dynamic Italian literary agencies. In the interview granted to newitalianbooks, she outlines the increasingly important role that youtubers, instagrammers and tiktokers have taken on in the Italian publishing market in recent years.
How did you come to work as a literary agent?
I have been a great reader since I was a child, and I have always dreamed of working in the publishing world. After my studies and a period living abroad, I started working as a literary translator and at around the same time I became one of the five founding partners of the publishing house nottetempo. After that, I had several experiences as media and press relations manager for publishers and festivals, which allowed me to broaden my professional background. In 2014, I realised that I could bring all the skills I had acquired into one job, that of literary agent, and together with Ombretta Borgia and Paolo Valentini (who later returned to work for a publisher), we founded Walkabout Lit. Agency.
Compared to the years when you started working in the publishing world, how have things changed for writers? In the past, only a few writers had an agent. Why is it almost indispensable today?
Over the last 25 years, the publishing world has changed significantly. It’s not just the product of publishing that has changed, but also the publishing market and consequently the strategy adopted by all the actors in this industry. In bookshops, you can find books written not only by writers, experts, journalists, but also by sports stars, TV presenters, singers, musicians, etc., right up to the very young youtubers, Instagrammers or Tiktokers. Online/social media promotion has become indispensable, just as book sales in online shops surpass bookshop sales. However, without going into too much detail of the major transformations, in Italy, until around ten years ago, only established writers had a literary agent, unlike Anglo-Saxon writers (both established and newcomers), who for more than half a century have used the services of a literary agent before seeking a publisher. Copyright law is constantly undergoing updates with the spreading of new media and technologies (TV series, podcasts, streaming platforms, etc.), which has led to the inclusion of new clauses in contracts. In short, an author would hardly be able to handle a negotiation, an auction, or review a publishing or film option contract. Even, and especially, for debuting authors, who often contact us when their publishing project is yet to reach its maturity, an agent can play a decisive role in terms of working on the text, in terms of assistance when signing the first publishing contract, and in terms of foreign and film rights. In addition, publishers receive so many proposals from debuting writers that they cannot filter them all, so agents also play a filtering role. I would also add that the intermediary role played by the literary agent allows the writer to have an exclusively professional relationship with the publisher, delegating all administrative and financial tasks to the agent.
Which publishing sectors does your agency focus on?
Our agency does not exclude any literary genre; our scouting work has given many authors the opportunity to make their debut with large and medium-sized publishers in a variety of genres. Undoubtedly, the authors and books represented also reflect our tastes, so definitely literary fiction, nonfiction, historical fiction, crime fiction, upmarket fiction, are the most represented; however, we are interested in there being an authorial and stylistic signature in the fiction we represent. We are also very interested in cultural, scientific, literary and historical popularisation, in books for children and young readers, in memoirs of important figures in Italian history, politics, and culture.
There is the national market and there is the international market: how are these two different activities divided within the agency?
In an agency like ours, we divide responsibilities between administration-contracts-rights and editorial; editorial covers the national and international markets and cinema.
A writer’s success at home does not immediately translate into success abroad. What ‘kind’ of writer sells well abroad? Those who are more strongly marked by their national origins (in other words, those who are more “Italian”) or those who are more international?
It’s undeniable that the success of a book’s sales in Italy facilitates our work abroad, as do certain literary awards such as the Strega or the Campiello, as well as film adaptations. But it is also true that some Italian bestsellers have not been as successful as expected when they cross the border. The history of a nation conditions people’s sensibilities and literary inclinations or tastes, so it is very difficult to generalise. In my experience, the more strictly Italian stories, those that are more linked to our tradition and our past, are the ones that attract the most interest from foreign publishers.
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?
In recent years genre literature has not lost its weight in the publishing market, but there have definitely been a few changes. In the wake of the worldwide success of the My Brilliant Friend saga, many publishers have launched or are looking for Italian family sagas set in the South but not only (in great demand abroad). Autofiction and ‘narrative non-fiction’ have also been growing in popularity in recent years, taking up more and more space in the domestic publishing market. True stories, popularised history, science and mythology, and books on wellness are gaining ground at the expense of nonfiction, which is one of the declining segments. Compared to the last two decades of the 20th century, the literary production of the last few years clearly shows that there is less emphasis on higher-brow fiction and more on more accessible fiction.
What do you think of public subsidies for the translation of Italian books into foreign languages? (I am referring in particular to subsidies granted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and those, more recently created, granted by Cepell, the Centre for Books and Reading – Ministry of Culture).
Public subsidies for the translation of Italian books into foreign languages are a precious help for the international distribution of our authors. For each translation grant awarded by the Ministry or by Cepell, we have made a great effort to communicate and invite our international contacts, organising online meetings and/or trips abroad, an effort that has always been rewarded with positive results. I would like to point out, however, that the translation grants awarded by Cepell, as Cepell cannot pay money abroad, require the rights holder to advance the money to the foreign publisher. As we can see, for a large publisher, advancing payments for up to twenty grants (ranging from 500 euros to 5.000 euros) is not a major problem, but for smaller literary agencies like ours, it is a major financial commitment, and in many cases impossible to bear, which is why many agencies have given up on taking advantage of these opportunities from the start. As Adali, the association of Italian literary agents, we are looking for alternative solutions, as practised in other European countries, which would make our work easier and allow all literary agents to take advantage of the valuable opportunities offered by Cepell.