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17 May 2021

Is there an international dimension to literary representation?

Laura Pugno

In a publishing industry that is day-by-day becoming increasingly globalised, is there also an international dimension to literary representation?

In Italy, as we are aware, the traditional relationship between agent and author took longer to establish itself as a publishing standard, unlike in the English-speaking world and elsewhere. And is this professional relationship still tied in particular to nationality and/or language (categories that do not entirely overlap), or is it moving in other directions?

In this survey, we interviewed both authors and agents, putting together a patchwork of opinions and points of view, from the “Ferrante effect” to newer developments.

Let’s start with the underlying processes. As Maria Paola Romeo – from Grandi e Associati, a long-standing agency for Italian authors – tells us, “the international dimension of agencies in Italy is ensured by establishing mutual relationships with foreign sub-agencies, with Italian agencies acting in turn as sub-agencies of the foreign partner. This is especially the case for countries far from Europe, such as Canada and Australia, or in particular markets such as China, Japan, Korea, where language barriers must also be taken into consideration. Within Europe, this is not always necessary. The role of literary scouts and their suggestions of hot titles from international publishers is also key. Although, of course, the dynamic is different, because the scout works for the publisher, while the sub-agent works for the agency.”

For Claire Sabatié-Garat, general manager of The Italian Literary Agency (TILA), formed in 2015 from the merger of three agencies – ALI, the oldest Italian literary agency, founded in 1898 in Turin by Augusto Foà, along with Luigi Bernabò e Associati and Marco Vigevani e Associati – the relationship between agent and author continues to feature, “a local dimension  because although extensive knowledge of the national market, authors, publishers and the cultural environment is fundamental for the success of a book and its author, but it is no longer enough. The international dimension has become increasingly

Important for the performance of a title in its own market and often we work on both fronts simultaneously, creating synergies, thanks to a network of international contacts, correspondents, acquaintances, translators etc… The representation of authors also includes cultural contributions in foreign publications, and not just during the promotion of their book.” Maria Vittoria Puccetti, also from TILA, emphasises the importance, for the benefit of the image of Italian writers abroad, and especially for the North American market, of “what we can call the Elena Ferrante effect. We communicate a lot with other countries, even if foreign authors represented directly by Italy are an exception. Dialogue tends to take the form of a sub-agency relationships with foreign agencies, for example for established names such as Jonathan Franzen, Paul Auster, or, among new authors, Amanda Gorman.” Chiara Piovan, also from TILA, points out the importance “in the relationship with sub-agencies in Europe but also in Japan, Korea, Turkey, China, of the rediscovery of 20th-century classics. This great Italian heritage was silent for some time, but it can now be promoted in an innovative way, in part thanks to the historical distance that enables us to view authors in a new light. The Ferrante effect was also felt with regard to authors such as Natalia Ginzburg and Elsa Morante. There was a whole movement following the success of My Brilliant Friend that sparked an interest never seen before, with American translators taking an active part in this rediscovery of the second half of the twentieth century in Italy. It has to be said that, lately, it is becoming more common to see contemporary Italian authors who find international agents directly.”

Logically, the first to adopt this emerging trend include Italian authors with strong ties abroad, such as the writer, journalist and professor at the New York University Film and Television Department, Antonio Monda, artistic director of the Rome Film Fest, who is on the roster of one of the world’s best-known agencies, the Andrew Wylie Agency, based in New York and London. “I owe it to my agency, which has a very dynamic and international approach, that I have been translated in 11 countries,” comments Antonio Monda, recalling how Wylie’s client list “also includes the estates of Italian classics, such as Giorgio Bassani and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, as well as Italian authors of international bestsellers, such as Alessandro Baricco and Roberto Saviano.”

Born in Izmir and raised in Milan, Ekin Oklap is one of the agents at Wylie’s London office, as well as the English translator of Orhan Pamuk, nominated for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Ekin Oklap remarks, “Although a great many writers are still mostly represented by national agencies, or directly by their publishers, there is definitely an international dimension to literary representation. This dimension is actually growing, and perhaps it is only logical that this should be the case.  The quality of a book does not depend on the language in which it was written or the country in which it was published, and as agents we have a duty to work to ensure that the best works literature and non-fiction – regardless of the author’s nationality – are read and translated into as many languages as possible.”

Among the youngest Italian authors with the Wylie agency is Francesca Manfredi, who graduated from the contemporary humanities academy Scuola Holden in 2014 and was the 2017 winner of the Premio Campiello Opera Prima with her collection of short stories Un buon posto dove stare (La nave di Teseo). She tells her story like this: “After graduation, I stayed on at Scuola Holden to develop a project. Andrew Wylie gave a lecture for us, he said he was willing to read the stories of some students and recent graduates of the Holden School with a view to representing them, and I was chosen. Mr. Wylie reads Italian and put me in touch with Ekin Oklap, who is my agent. I appreciated the very quick response times and the active and hands-on participation at international fairs, such as London and Frankfurt – lockdown aside, of course. My novel L’impero della polvere (2019, La Nave di Teseo) has already been released in France, with Laffont, and will be published in the United States with Norton.”

So, there are Italian authors who establish relationships with foreign agencies directly. Some of these authors subsequently decide to return to Italy for representation, such as Paolo Giordano, who switched from Wylie to the Monica Malatesta Agency. The founder, Monica Malatesta, observes, “Many agencies represent both authors from the country (or who use the language) where the agency is based and foreign authors. Instead, we represent exclusively authors who write in Italian, in Italy and all over the world.  This is a natural consequence of our agency’s way of working, which is “tailor-made” for each of the represented authors: attention to detail, which is the distinctive hallmark of MalaTesta Lit. Ag., would actually be impossible to practise so meticulously in a variety of contexts that we are not totally familiar with.  Our preferred contexts, from the point of view of the agency, are the Italian publishing market and the international publishing market for titles translated from Italian. When it comes to the foreign market, we can work to build an international path for Italian authors; for example, the simultaneous publication in dozens of countries, during the 2020 lockdown, of Nel contagio by Paolo Giordano, with a coordinated press launch on the same day in the Italian, French, German and Spanish press, or the development of international paths for authors such as Matteo Strukul, Paolo Cognetti, Marco Missiroli. The Italian agency coordinates the work of publishers in the various countries both among themselves and between them and Italy, working in a virtuous manner that is made possible by the rapid exchange of information and real-time updates.”

Then there are Italian agencies that also have foreign authors on their client list: this is the case with Fiammetta Biancatelli and Walkabout, which is part of ADALI, the association of Italian literary agents founded in 2020. “Among our authors,” says Fiammetta Biancatelli, “we have the writer Ersi Sotiropulos, much translated and nominated by Greece for the Nobel Prize. Ersi writes in Greek and speaks excellent Italian. We met during my time working as a press officer. Her Greek publisher is Patakis, while our agency looks after international relations for her. She is a much-loved literary author, who has won both the National Prize for Literature and the National Critics’ Prize in Greece. Another author we represent in Italy, through his Turkish agent, is Burhan Sönmez. When one of his books comes out, we work on the launch with the press office and the publishing director. Normally this is not something you do when working as a sub-agency, but we think of Burhan Sönmez as our own author. In ADALI, there are many agencies whose core business is the representation of other catalogues or other agencies, but this is not the case with Walkabout. We have seen steady growth in recent years and the year of the pandemic was actually a stellar year for us as an agency. Despite the fact that we couldn’t attend literary fairs in person, we saw no decline in our sales abroad, thanks above all to digital and the sharp increase in film rights. Again in respect to foreign countries, we have a strong professional relationship with Jessica Craig at Craig Literary, an American literary agent who lives in Barcelona and has many authors from Iran, from Africa… We work on some of her books in Italy. However, the agency’s Italian authors are certainly our greatest commitment and now number about a hundred.”

She lives in Barcelona, and has several Italian authors and authors in her catalogue Sandra Pareja Colantoni, born in Canada, of Italian and Peruvian origin, lives in Barcelona and has several Italian authors in her catalogue. After eight years at the prestigious Spanish agency Casanovas & Lynch, where she was in charge of foreign rights, she joined the ranks of agents at US-based Massie & McQuilkin Literary Agents in 2020. Sandra Pareja: “The main challenge in my professional career nowadays is that of representing authors in languages that I speak, such as Spanish and Latin American Spanish, and Italian, but that are not my native language, which is English. For years, at Casanovas & Lynch, I oversaw the sales of the foreign rights of great authors, such as Javier Marías, all over the world.  Perhaps the literary world was more compartmental twenty years ago: at foreign publishers, there were people in charge of foreign fiction who were specialized in the various national literatures, and at large publishing houses such as Gallimard they still exist, but this is now just five percent of cases. Today, heads of foreign fiction have a broad vision of different literatures and look for interesting stories across the board. Spanish is a language that itself contains other languages, and, for me, combining the representation of Spanish and Latin American authors with Italian authors was a natural step, also prompted by interesting encounters in Italy, such as the Tempo di Libri events I have attended. It is not easy to find writers, books and works that give meaning to an agent’s work, at least as I understand it… sometimes the agent has to think like a scout or a publisher. I often get requests for “the next Elena Ferrante”, but it is more interesting to develop new approaches. Moreover, Italian books that are great national successes – and this is also true for Latin American authors – do not always work abroad. Among the Italian writers that I represent there is a common thread, they dialogue a lot with other cultures, they have a different and unusual sensibility: because they have travelled a lot, like Giovanna Giordano, who is currently being republished by Mondadori, or because they are Italians living abroad, like Alessia Biasatto who is about to debut with La Nave di Teseo. Now, this thing of Italians living abroad is a new literary trend that is only just emerging. Generally speaking, my authors have a strong relationship with other literatures. We could say, in a positive sense, that they are outsiders, always a bit foreign in their own country.” The Italian authors represented by Sandra Pareja include Viola Di Grado, who lived for a long time in Japan and now lives in London, and Claudia Durastanti, born in Brooklyn and the translator of Ocean Vuong and Donna Haraway.  Claudia Durastanti: “I chose a foreign agent who was capable of reading me in Italian, without any intermediate filters, in a somewhat ahistorical dimension. We share a sense of openness but also of being rooted, both in Europe and in the United States. This mirror effect forged a strong synergy between us, especially in terms of the book that brought us together,” the novel by Claudia, not by chance entitled La straniera (The Stranger) (La nave di Teseo).

Other Italian authors, such as Francesco Pacifico – author of Storia della mia purezza (The Story of My Purity) (Mondadori) and represented by Anna Stein from Curtis Brown, confirm the importance of personal experience when it comes to choosing to go international. Francesco Pacifico: “Right from the beginning of my story as a writer, I had been searching for a different perspective, with the Australian agent Kylee Doust. It is not a case of xenomania, it’s just that I like to be suspended between worlds. In 2008, I began spending time in New York, thanks to Martina Testa and Marco Cassini, then at Minimum Fax, developing relationships with the American literary scene. I grew up reading the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation, writers who were always travelling the world… My agent reads in Italian but I also appreciate the need to convey the sense and energy of what I have written in another language.” Veronica Raimo, author of Miden (Mondadori), also represented by Anna Stein, shares this perspective. “It is precisely a certain degree of distance that makes the relationship with a foreign agency work, together with the type of authors represented. A better balance is struck between editorial and textual dynamics and extra-editorial, extra-textual paths. As far as my agency is concerned, the role of scouts is really important, such as Rebecca Servadio,”, who lives in London.

Also living between two countries, Italy and France, is Chiara Mezzalama, who in Il giardino persiano (The Garden of Inside-Outside) (E/O) tells the story of her childhood in Iran with her diplomat father, and who, alongside the French agent Magalie Delobelle, from So far so good, recently teamed up with the Italian agent Loredana Rotundo: “My situation is stimulating as well as complex and gives rise unpredictable twists and turns. Magalie Delobelle and I met at the Salon du Livre in Paris, where I live, and it was a very forceful encounter. I had just moved to France and she had just opened her own agency; also, I had only just started writing in French. Being halfway between two countries is an approach that works for me and my creativity, it just takes a little more patience. For example, for my latest novel, Dopo la pioggia, Magalie is following the French-speaking world and Scandinavia and Loredana the rest of the world, whereas the opposite happens for for some of my projects in French.”

Another Italian abroad, Gaia Cangioli, who in 2007 moved to Paris to study translation and since then has worked in publishing, as well as at the Sorbonne University as chargée de cours, gives a more in-depth view of the situation, especially as regards France.  For several years, she managed the Amaca agency together with Arianna Malacrida, who now with Ghirigori represents artists and illustrators, including many Italians, such as Manuele Fior and Elisa Talentino. Gaia Cangioli, who now represents foreign publishers from various countries, such as Spain, Canada and the United States, in Italy, as well as projects and texts by Italian publishers in France, summarizes: “Compared to a few years ago, Italian publishers certainly pay more attention to foreign rights and where they do not have an in-house office that deals with them, as happens with small publishers, they look for an agency to represent them abroad. Italy’s approach towards Livre Paris, with economic support and exposure, generates movement and interest in our country towards the French-speaking sphere. In France, Italian is a language that has always been translated but it is not among the most translated, given that English takes the lion’s share. However, big bestsellers like Roberto Saviano and Elena Ferrante have prompted many French publishers to take more interest in Italian fiction in general. Even in terms of the general public, Italian novels are enjoying renewed popularity, especially family sagas and women’s literature, a bit like what happened with Swedish novels. In addition, especially for fiction, there are translators of the highest quality in France who not only do a great job in terms of language, but also have metaliterary skills and understand international relations and publishing processes, and often work closely with the agencies, behind new translations and new projects. In my experience, it is more difficult to sell non-fiction, especially by small independent publishers. For non-fiction, national names tend to count for more, the authoritativeness of the universities. It is also more difficult to find good translators because fiction, novels are more attractive.”

In this broadening of horizons, new developments arise not only in relations with foreign countries, but also thanks to the cross-mediality and trans-mediality of the narratives of today’s Italian authors, something we explore with Chiara Melloni and Irene Pepiciello, of S&P Literary, the literary branch of the Sosia&Pistoia Group, a well-established agency in the world of entertainment that many years ago expanded its activities to the literary field, with authors such as Teresa Ciabatti, Paolo di Paolo, Jonathan Bazzi and Chiara Tagliaferri. Trained in a publishing environment, including at Einaudi and at independent publishing houses in Rome, Chiara Melloni and Irene Pepiciello work as a team, sharing Italy and the foreign market between them. The agency’s strategy is to represent only Italian authors. Chiara Melloni explains: “At S&P, we have a system of exclusive and non-exclusive sub-agencies, even for individual titles, which allows us to focus better country by country, while for particular markets such as China, we have stable relationships with sub-agency partners. New trans-media developments are a preferred route for foreign markets. In this context, literary scouts, who have started to follow film productions, also play an important role as connector between worlds. If a title is interesting, it is flagged by multiple scouts, the paths are coordinated. The scouting profession is also expanding in publishing and films.”  Irene Pepiciello confirms, “More and more today, projects are created in dialogue with the authors, and then the media for which they are to be developed are chosen, be it print, audio or video. Before a book becomes a book, it can be a television series project, even at the request of the producers themselves.  It’s all a crossing of flows. This leads to more appeal on the international scene, as well as great vitality and growth. It is a very interesting time to work in publishing,” she concludes.

It is widely rumoured that the terrible year of the pandemic has proved, for Italian publishing, and in particular for many literary agencies, to be a time of crisis but also – without rhetoric and while recognising the difficulties experienced – of genuine opportunities. And the hope, of course, is that this trend will continue.