Opening in the States: Italy’s 21lettere Expands With 26letters

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Independent publisher Alberto Bisi brings his meticulous, measured ’21lettere’ approach to the States, opening his new 26letters.

Alberto Bisi. Image: Comune di Soliera

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

‘This Is Exactly Where I Want To Be’
Today’s (December 5) opening of a venture called 26letters may make some people in publishing weep with exhaustion.

“Just six titles a year,” says the introductory copy on the new site under “How We Realize It.”

Like the Napa Valley vintner’s Italian name Far Niente (“It is good to do nothing”), the idea will either make you calmer or crazier.

But the Italian publisher Alberto Bisi’s explanation for his way of working makes his position very clear: “We do not want to produce titles one after the other. We do not want to hurry. It is simple. You could relate it to our stated laziness, to the slow living that is emerging, or to else. For sure, we do not want to hurry.”

Bisi, in  his native Italy, is known for 21lettere and on that publishing venture’s site, you’ll find an almost identical design. What’s different? Multiple books.

21lettere—named for Italiano’s 21 letters as opposed to the English alphabet’s “26letters”—has had four years’ head start on its sister brand opening today in the United States. It was founded in 2019 in Modena, which may ring a bell for you as the home of the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti, if not for its fame as source of magnificent olive oil.

To get started today in the States, Bisi has chosen to make a single work available, Sempé in New York, the full collection of the late French illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempé’s covers for The New Yorker. Sempé (1932-2022) was known for his vision as a cartoonist whose eloquently spare “monographic” touch saw his work find its way to Paris Match as well as onto the cover of The New Yorker for decades starting in the late 1970s.

Sempé also illustrated Patrick Suskind’s The Story of Mr. Sommer (Die Geschichte von Herrn Sommer). A 1922 animated film, Little Nicholas: Happy as Can Be was based on Sempé’s Le Petit Nicholas series.

The newly released collection of Sempé’s work from 26letters includes not only the magazine covers that made the illustrator’s work so familiar among Americans but also drawings being published for the first time. It also includes an interview with the late artist, and is priced at US$65 in print.

Bisi, it seems, has other interests in American arts and letters, having published in Italy some of the works of Walter Mosley and poet Catherynne M. Valente.

He says in an interview that the start with Sempé is a way to “mark the road,” but his pattern of reaching beyond his Italian borders is hardly new to him.

At 21lettere, he has published Yu Miri’s Tokyo: Ueno Station, which won the United States’ National Book Award for Translated Literature–a win divided between Yu and translator Morgan Giles–in its Penguin Random House / Riverhead publication.

Bisi also has a fondness for the work of the two-time Newberry-winning American children’s author Lois Lowry.

And his interest in the work of the late journalist and writer Jean Diwo, whose The Ladies of the Faubourg (Les Dames du Faubourg from Gallimard in France) can be seen elusively sliding by on the new 26letters site as the only other book apparent after Sempé’s. It’s another work that he has released in Italy at 21lettere as Le dame del Faubourg.

Scouting” for new work, Bisi says, “is one of the best parts of this job. Authors and agents can easily reach us from our site.”

He does, however, caution that “the selection is even tougher by us” than it might be at other houses “because our releases per year are very limited. So even if we say ‘no’ many more times than we actually agree to publish a manuscript … we’re still eager to receive them and read them. Because in the end, it’s where it all starts from.”

‘I Still Believe in Beauty and Quality’

Some might wonder if the aesthetically poised work for which Sempé was famed may have given Bisi an idea that the States, let alone New York, is as orderly as it might appear to be on many of those magazine covers, refined as each of them is to the artist’s one-nugget-of-observation at a time.

No, Bisi says, he’s well aware that.

“Here, we are an even smaller fish,” he says. “Here, I am an absolute beginner. What can I say? it’s crazy but it feels amazing. I love the energy, the positive attitude around here. It’s in your [the States’] DNA and this is wonderful. The attraction was too strong. I couldn’t help it. It’s the biggest and most competitive market. It’s exactly why I wanted it.”

He may enjoy a sense of being armored by his approach. “We do not follow the market,” he says, however charmed he may be of that positive Yankee energy. “We stick to quality, and whatever happens happens. Which is quite far from how publishing houses are normally led and managed.

“When I mention quality,” he says, “I mean that beauty still has something to do with it. That’s the main reason why we publish a book.

“Beauty still has something to do with it. That’s the main reason why we publish a book.”Alberto Bisi, 26letters

“This has been lost in the big mass market, so, if we can make it, that’s a signal to the market. We’re in the hands of the readers—journalists, bookshop keepers, but most of all, the readers—they will make it possible.

“I still believe in beauty and quality.”

And as for that clean start he’s making in getting his digital storefront unveiled online today in the States, “It means all the advantages I had in the Italian market” when starting there with 21lettere, he says, “here are gone, non-existent.”

He may learn soon the phrase “without a net.”

“Still,” Alberto Bisi says, “I couldn’t help it. This is exactly where I want to be.”

More on independent publishing is here, more on the United States market is here, and more on the Italian market 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 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.

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