Obama’s Example Should Inspire US Kids Pubs to Change

In Guest Contributors & Editorial by Guest Contributor

By Sharon Glassman

Today’s hard times could inspire better book times for US kids’ imprints, says Grazia Gotti, co-founder of the Giannino Stoppani cultural cooperative and children’s bookshop in Bologna and one of the organizers of the Bologna Book Fair.

The secret? Arrivaderci isolation and “big marketing.”  Buon Giorno dialogue, “long-sellers” and European-style cooperation.

Barack Obama

His openness should inspire US kids publishers, says Bologna's Gotti.

In a chat with Publishing Perspectives, Gotti, a self-confessed “optimist” whose passion for books infuses her speech and perspective on publishing, outlined the bright spots — actual and potential — she perceives amid the challenges of the children’s book business today.

If her credo sounds a bit like the Obama campaign’s “Change We Can Believe In” slogan, that’s ok. “We’re Obama fanatics,” she says, of Italians-at-large. Her approach to the internationalization of the children’s book business is similarly infused with hope — and passion.

“I adore American books,” Gotti says. “You’re so good.”

At the same time, she believes, the American mindset is needlessly closed. It’s a “paradox,” she says.

Novels can be very difficult to translate — culturally and economically, she admits.

But picture books, with their minimal texts and winsome illustrations, offer a great opportunity for publishing houses in different countries to collaborate.

All of which brings us back to the Italian publishing model which fuels Gotti’s hopes for the industry-at-large.

“Italian creativity is very personal, private, based on small markets,” she says.

The fall of the Berlin Wall opened the way for a cultural and physical exchange between the former-East-and-West Europe.

What endured, in a good way, were the different verbal and visual styles of different regions.

Today, Gotti notes, it’s easy for a Russian illustrator to work with an Italian publishing house while living and working in her home country. The result infuses a text with a creative element that’s culturally unique and part of larger, integrated business whole.

“Culture travels with maximum simplicity,” in the European model, Gotti says. And a best-seller isn’t the only sign of a successful deal. There’s a certain amount of wait-and-see built into the process — a certain level of art for art’s sake, on the European side.

Americans, despite their nominal New World status, act more old-school when it comes to publishing work from abroad, in Gotti’s opinion. She divides the U.S. into three regions:

1) The open West, with publishers such as Chronicle Books, which she sees as ready, willing and able to partner with Europe, which are involved in the buying and selling books across languages and geographic borders. “They buy and sell good kids’ books,” she says.

2) The Big New York houses, which remain wedded to — and burdened by — old-school models of Big Marketing and best-sellers.

3) I Bostoniani — The Bostonians, which she sees as having a wonderful cultural sensibility, but “a bit of isolationist position” in terms of their openness to requests for collaboration from Europe.

There have been some success stories, of course:

Italian illustrators who’ve made inroads in American houses include Nicoletta Ceccoli (who has published with Boston’s Houghton Mifflin) and Anna Laura Cantone, illustrator of Milanese author Beatrice Masini’s Here Comes the Bride, published by Random House this January. (Masini is also the Italian translator for the Harry Potter books Chalice of Fire and Prisoner of Azkaban.)

But these illustrators could be published even more often, Gotti says, given their singular styles and cross-over appeal. And there is a world of talent waiting to be discovered.

“The economic crisis has scared them,” Gotti says about the American houses. “I’d advise our American friends to take courage — and to take a look at Italy” for examples of how to do more with less.

First off, she advises the Americans to reconsider the supposition that a book is only successful if it is a best-seller, and consequently, to scale back the money spent on “big marketing.” The human hours and dollars saved by just letting a book “do its thing”  and letting them percolate in stores or online for a longer period of time before judging their viability can then spent publishing more smaller books. This longer, kinder view is especially important when an author’s work comes from abroad.

Gotti illustrates her point with the European sales arc for American author Kate Di Camillo’s The Magician’s Elephant. Gotti first noticed it doing well in a Russian translation. Steady success in the Italian market followed.

“Slowly, slowly without marketing,” she says. “Because of the goodness of her writing.”

Gotti refers to this kind of book as a “long-seller” and suggests that Americans can help to create more of them — for US and non-U.S. authors — by focusing on “openness and dialogue.” Publish a “skillful Russian or a skillful Italian” author, she suggests, and allow them the chance — and the time — it takes to become a long-seller in the States. The results could be surprising and beneficial in the ties it could forge with other houses.

The US could also benefit from looking beyond its physical borders to authors from South America, or to “the common roots” of books being read in the East — Arab and Chinese authors in particular, Gotti says.

And Americans would do well to look within their country for more as well: Gotti asks why it is that she’s yet to see an American book editor “of color” at the Bologna Book Fair. As a reader who adored Ezra Jack Keat’s book The Snowy Day as a child (first published in 1962, this now classic book broke the color barrier in mainstream children’s publishing), she believes that black American authors and editors deserve more pride of place at Bologna.

Gotti then extended an invitation to American houses who’d like to assemble a round-table devoted to the work of black Americans, both those already beloved in Italy, such as Walter Dean Myers and his son, the illustrator Christopher Myers, as well those whose work may be lesser-known to international audiences — for now.

The individuals who write, produce and sell books are part of one, international world, Gotti believes. To limit ourselves to a part of it is to needlessly erect walls.

VISIT: The Web site for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

DISCUSS: Publishing Perspectives is planning special coverage of the Bologna Book Fair, so tell us your plans for the Fair.

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.