Interview with Maria Cristina Guerra (Grandi & Associati Literary Agency)
Maria Cristina Guerra, a graduate in Political Science from the Catholic University of Milan, worked for the publishing house Hoepli, Le Messaggerie Libri, as PR and Press Office. She has been a literary agent for fifteen years and a Grandi & Associati partner for over five years.
What path led you to become a literary agent?
My path has been, as per my CV, varied and ‘not very obvious’. My background is in humanistic studies, but what defines me and has defined my education and career is above all flexibility, my ability to switch from one subject to another, my acquired ability to move through different areas and weave relationships and contacts. It all began with a passion for literature and books, from an interest in human nature, in a manner of speaking, and I went through the entire publishing chain, from bookshops to publishing houses, distribution, and finally to my current job as a literary agent, which combines my love of reading with the desire to foster, support, and encourage people who, as writers, “uncover” the most beautiful but also most fragile part of themselves. Witnessing the birth of a work of literature and its destiny, from creation to publication, is as difficult as it is exciting. However, if I have to think of the real point where my career started, I should talk about a series of children’s books published by Penguin Random House and titled ‘Meg &Mog’, which I stubbornly decided to have published in Italy. The attempt failed, but it triggered a series of contacts, relationships with Italian and foreign publishers and with Italian and foreign writers , which slowly became an asset for me and Grandi & Associati, the agency of which I have been a partner for some years now.
Compared to the years of your professional debut in the publishing world, how have things changed for authors? In the past, only a few writers had an agent. Why is it almost indispensable now?
Actually, the role of the literary agent in Italy was born around 1898 in Turin with Augusto Foà and the foundation of ALI Agenzia Letteraria Internazionale, followed in 1951 by Erich Linder, the first great Italian agent. We may say we have a shorter history than in Anglo-Saxon countries, but the tradition of this profession is now well-established in Italy too. There are however but a few successful and solid agencies; Grandi & Associati has been around for about thirty years now, and there are many agencies that emerge: some flourish, some others die immediately. There are countries such as France where the direct author-publisher relationship is very strong and still mostly resists the inclusion of an intermediary figure, who defends the author’s interests, but knows how to speak a professional lingo filtered from more emotional aspects, and is familiar with publishing dynamics. In the end, we all work towards a common interest, which is to publish ‘beautiful’ and successful books, or at least books that exemplify good literature. However, we sometimes forget that the author, besides being a creative, is a professional and cannot work for pure glory. Therefore, stipulating good contracts, holding the strings of the whole process, defending authorship, knowing one’s counterparties well, and translating the author’s requests, needs and rights to the publisher requires skills that the writer doesn’t normally have. Finally, there is such a profusion of publishing houses and such a number of titles published per year that having someone at the writer’s side who can find their bearings and plot a course has become almost indispensable.
The agency Grandi & Associati counts among its authors important names that take centre stage in the Italian literary scene. Some of them have gone through a number of agencies. How do you “conquer” an author’s trust, so much so that you convince them to change their agent?
I would say that our philosophy has always been to wait for the author to seek us out. We know our work well enough to understand that the reasons that cause an author to change agency are sometimes subtle, impenetrable, questionable. If we know the agency they come from and recognise their professionalism, we sometimes wonder what we can do better. Often, however, there are reasons that lie outside professionalism and are more about the relationship. Marriages are dissolved, retainers are also dissolved. All this is to say that we try to never fish from our competitors’ nets, but if an author knocks at our door, we are happy to listen. The scouting process, which I am personally passionate about, is different, and concerns the hunt for new voices and talent.
There is a national and an international market: how are these two different activities split in the agency?
We have an agent, Luisa Rovetta, who takes care of the whole process of introducing our Italian titles to foreign publishers, promoting and editing publications once their translation rights are sold. Not all titles are handled by the agency, as it can happen (though rarely) that these are sold as secondary rights to the publisher. In any case, our agency has an address book and a series of contacts that allowed us over the years to have our authors translated worldwide, and in some lucky cases translated into more than twenty languages.
Children’s literature takes up a rather large portion of Grandi & Associati’s activities, and is also the sector in which the publishing sector in Italy is most successful in terms of copyright sales abroad. What are the peculiarities of this sector and what are its prospects?
This is the area my colleague and partner Alice Fornasetti is mostly concerned with. After working and holding important roles with Piemme publishing, and after successfully directing the Battello a Vapore book series, a few years ago she decided to jump to the other side of the “fence” and bring some of the most important names in children’s literature, including Roberto Piumini and Mario Lodi, to the agency. We can say we are – probably and for the time being – the only Italian agency to have this specific focus. Not only then does children’s literature continues to prove a healthy sector in our publishing industry, but it is also developing towards the market of audio-visual rights we typically manage. In addition, we have a growing interest in graphic novels and comics, which still remain fairly unexplored areas for agents. We recently brought the well-known author of graphic novels Igort, to the agency.
In light of your experience, what trends do you see emerging in today’s Italian fiction? Will genre literature continue to grow in popularity?
I think so, especially popular fiction, whether it be crime or romantic novels, family sagas or historical fiction, and this depends on many reasons, first and foremost perhaps the growing need to find in books a place to ‘rest’ and take shelter from the uncertainties, worries, and fears that these last few years had in store for us. There is also a growing tendency to dedicate less and less time to reading – apart from avid readers, who are declining – and a reduced ability to concentrate, also due to the continuous presence of electronic devices and social networks. This makes it easier to approach easier and more engaging story-driven books, and move away from more complex works of literature, centred on style and linguistic choices. Obviously, when a novel – even one that doesn’t fall into popular fiction per se – finds the right balance between captivating story and brilliant writing, whether or not genre, we hit the jackpot. And that is what all of us agents and publishers never stop to look for, good, well written stories that fit – at that moment and hopefully in the future – the readers’ taste as cross-sectionally as possible.