Rights Edition: Foreign Rights Sold to 12 Percent of Italy’s New Books

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Positioning itself for the road to its turn as Frankfurter Buchmesse’s 2024 guest of honor, the Italian market is celebrating its international rights sales.

AIE president Ricardo Franco Levi, left, with his fellow creative industry leaders at Rome’s 2021 Piu libri piu liberi. Image: AIE

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Levi: ‘We’re Now Focused on Frankfurt 2024’
Having made several year-end reports from this month’s Più libri più liberithe national fair in Rome for small and medium publishing companies—the Association of Italian Publishers (Associazione Italiana Editori, AIE) is going out on a high note for 2021, announcing that Italian literature and its industry are “increasingly international” with translation rights to 12 percent of its published works being sold annually into the international trade.

In the first pandemic year 2020—much of it an excruciating experience of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic for the nation–the AIE says it actually managed to raise its rights sales into international territories to a total 8,586 Italian works, 0.2 percent more than in 2019.

The drawback? The association is concerned to have found that small- and medium-size publishers—those putting out between nine and 100 titles per year—account for only 9 percent of this total, three percentage points less than the previous year. Clearly, then, both the success and the task ahead are becoming clear.

“The International Dimension of Italian Publishing” is the name of the report in which these and other figures were reported, a session led by AIE president Ricardo Franco Levi.

“Supporting our publishers abroad—especially medium and small ones—has always been one of our primary objectives,” said Ricardo Franco Levi.

And Più libri più liberi confirms it again this year with our rights center,” a two-day trading floor and coupled with a fellowship program that was developed in the AIE’s new association with Elena Pasoli‘s Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

Levi also pointed to “a calendar of activities for foreign publishers aimed at their discovery of and interaction with the world of Italian literature for young readers.

“And the most important appointment on the horizon,” he said, “is the 2024 edition of the Frankfurter Buchmesse, at which Italy will be the guest of honor—an event we’ve already been preparing for, for a long time.”

New Figures on Italian Rights Sales

At La Nuvola during the 2021 Piu libri piu liberi in Rome. Image: AIE

To get a sense for the relatively fast trajectory of international rights sales for Italian work, consider that in 2001, translation rights to only 4 percent of published titles from Italy were sold to international publishing houses.

Looking at a corresponding 6-percent decline in purchases of new titles from other markets (9,127 books), the association sees itself to be “a country that’s very open to foreign cultures and literature, a country that translates frequently but that, over the years, has also become less dependent on literary contributions from abroad,” according to commentary developed for the news media by the association’s research division.

  • From 1997 to 2020, works by Italian authors increased by 56 percent and translations by 24 percent.
  • In 1997, one in four new publications was translated, now, 17 percent goes into translation.
  • In 2020, books were translated primarily from English (62 percent of all translations), followed by French (16 percent), German (7 percent), and Spanish (4 percent).

In the long-term, the association asserts that it anticipates a balance. For the moment, imports are more numerous than exports, but the publishers’ community, cheered by this new progress, is looking to push the export side higher.

“We still buy more publishing rights from foreign publishers than we manage to sell,” the team’s discussion points clarify, “but in some sectors, like those of children’s books, illustrated works, and nonfiction titles, the situation has already reversed.”

At a more granular level, in 2020, Italian publishers bought foreign rights to:

  • 3,349 novels
  • 2,190 children’s and YA titles
  • 1,460 nonfiction titles
  • 93 illustrated books

Also in 2020, Italian publishers sold foreign rights to:

  • 2,420 novels
  • 2,812 children’s and YA titles
  • 2,027 nonfiction titles
  • 712 illustrated books

Who buys the most rights to Italy’s literature?

There were 5,914 books purchased for international publication and/or translation.

  • Europe is the primary market, buying the rights to 69 percent of Italy’s exports
  • Spain bought 1,301
  • France bought 917
  • Poland bought 650
  • Germany bought 591
  • The United Kingdom bought 237
Points for Focus in 2022

That 9-percent figure for the amount of exported content produced by small- and medium-size publishers is particularly concerning to the association because it represents a serious setback:

  • In 2020, those smaller presses sold international rights to 772 titles
  • In 2019, the same sector of the association sold 1,228 titles into overseas markets

The publishers, however, newly re-sensitized to the coronavirus’ role as B.1.1.529, the “omicron” variant moves quickly into Italy, point to “the exceptional circumstances of the first year of the pandemic,” and add, that the number of international rights transactions per small publisher came to only 3.1–so low as to “make every single operation expensive.”

Co-publications also are listed by the association as suffering a setback in 2020, dropping by a steep 65 percent. “However,” writes the team, “with 1,037 books, down from 2,987 in 2019), they still remain an important segment for the internationalization of Italian publishing.

Joining Levi in making the announcements of Italy’s international rights development were Carlo Ferro, the president of “ICE,” the Italian Trade Agency, which is stressing its support for the publishing sector.

“Books are still one of the preeminent means for spreading culture,” Ferro said. “Aware of this fact, the country’s economic system remains by the industry’s side and, like ICE, has confirmed its support.”

Ferro pointed out that ICE had brought 13 foreign business interests into Rome for AIE’s Piu libri piu liberi.

An audience in “the cloud” that gives Rome’s La Nuvola its name, for an author’s book presentation during Piu libri piu liberi 2021. Image: AIE

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Italian market and news from its publishers’ association is here, more on bookselling is here, and more of our coverage of industry statistics is here. More from us on comics is here, more on graphic novels is here, and more on book fairs, festivals, and other events is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on world book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.