The Life of a Literary Agent – An interview with Stefano Bisacchi



By Rajesh Subramanian

Stefano Bisacchi manages a reputed literary agency, Tempi Irregolari ( ) and has been instrumental in arranging the publication of translations in not only English but also other major world languages, of the works of many major authors from Europe, especially from the Balkan countries.

In this interview to Modern Literature, Stefano Bisacchi opens up about his life and career as a literary agent :

Could you share with us as to what attracted you to the career of a literary agent? Do you have any regrets?

I started my career as a literary agent quite late in my life, after long experience as a sales manager in a completely different business. Considering my degree in Classic Philology – a work about the language of Plauto and his Epidicus – and my strong interest in literature and books, it was a sort of destiny, written even in the place life had chosen for me to live in: a border. I’m living and working in Gorizia, Italy, a small town which is cut in two halves by a border: in the past it was the border between Italy and Yugoslavia, that means the border between West and East, Democracy and Communism; today it is the border between Italy and Slovenia. That’s why I started to promote Italian authors in Slovenia and Slovenian authors in Italy; after two years I had a good portfolio of clients: publishers, agencies and authors. And I’m still developing it. Regrets? I wish I could sing with Edith Piaf “No, je ne regretterien”; I would like to know my other lives, the possible ones we keep out when we make a choice; but as a man I have what I secretly and subconsciously was looking for.

How would the world of writing be, if there were no literary agents/agencies?

A literary agent is just a mediator. I do not believe that the extinction of literary agents would be such a trauma. The world of writing would be different if we should lose readers, and that’s happening, in an era when devices should make culture available to everyone. People don’t read, so they cannot be good writers. It’s a serious cultural problem: culture is often referred to as useless. But it is an important part of human beings. We must take care of this part, not just of literary agents.

What would be your advise to prospective authors, based on your experience?

Read; think; read; write; then read again and think if what you wrote is readable, if it’s what you thought and if it deserves to be read. In first, anyway: be modest.

Could you briefly explain the world of translation and the role it plays in spreading the literary works of authors who do not write originally in English or vice versa?

A translator is always the second author of a work. He plays a very important role; a bad translator can ruin a masterpiece. It’s a complex world; translations help circulation of works, of course; and you need to understand how a man thinks, feels and writes in his language to adapt his words, feelings and thoughts to another language and culture and sensitivity, without betraying any of the two. And thanks to God we have immense abundance of languages, that means we have abundance of thoughts and expressiveness. Unfortunately, translators are often forced to make their job in a hurry, and without receiving the right payment. Also, sometime translation subsidies which are granted by Associations or Ministries of Culture to support the spreading of literary works, could become a danger to the quality of the works themselves when careless, non-serious people are involved: people looking just for money and less interested in doing a good job, paying no care to their role in spreading culture.

Translations from Spanish and French into English have been occupying a major share of globally successful literary works. Do you agree with this view? If not, could you please elaborate.

Yes, we can agree: excluding Chinese, Arabic, Hindi/Urdu, Spanish and French are among the most wildly spoken languages in the world; translations costs can be lower. But English-speaking markets are more open to consider other languages.

Do you think readership of physical books is on an increasing trend? Or, is it on a declining trend due to the rapid expansion of the electronic media, especially the internet?

Answering this question in few lines is difficult. We should consider different media. For example, in Italy the digital market (including all digital supports: e-book, audio book etc.,) is 13% of the whole market, while it was 5% in 2011. Today the only e-book market is 5% (according to annual A.I.E.’s reports, the Association of Italian Publishers) – so numbers are increasing, even if physical book looks to be readers’ best friend. But a huge problem is hidden by this numbers: we are losing readers. It’s a general problem even if numbers change from country to country. 28.2% of Italian families have no more than 25 books in their houses. 10% of Italian families have not a single book at home! So physical book versus digital book is a data that has a great interest for the market but actually,  readers versus game players or TV addicted people is a cultural problem. We must solve the latter.

What qualities, if present in a literary work, say fiction, would make it a success? In other words, are there any elements that an author could consciously use to make his work a success?

 I guess it’s a mix of elements: good plot; ability in making characters true; style. It’s not easy to have everything in the same book. It happens sometime to have a book with a great story, an original idea which is badly told and written; sometime the style is good but the plot is so poor. I think that being a good author is somehow connected to what we told before: you must be a good reader. And we have too many people pretending to be great authors, when they do not care to be readers.

What are the challenges in popularizing books and authors across geographies?

I wish I had a formula. Most of the times you need a patient work, especially when you deal with authors from “minor” languages. In any case you must find the right publisher for each author, considering that being a successful author in Italy, for example, doesn’t mean that you are going to have the same success abroad. Cultural differences play a role in reader sensitivity. I could name many authors whose works are bestsellers somewhere while they were a flop elsewhere. Maybe I can name one author who passed away some years ago: Milorad Pavic who became very famous in 1988. My agency represents the Milorad Pavic Estate; earlier we had publishers from everywhere asking for rights for his works, but it’s hard to bring his titles in Italy or Germany. There are many reasons of course – cultural, political, people’s taste, the market itself.

What kind of literary works do you like, personally?

I’m very curious so I try to read different genres, from everywhere. I pay great attention to the style of writing. I do not want to tell about a few authors, leaving aside others; so thinking about classics, personally I love Anatole France, Francois Mauriac, John Steinbeck, but even Lovecraft; Solzenicyn; Clark, D’Annunzio, Woodhouse, Eco, and, let me name him, “my” Milorad Pavic… the genre is not important to me, it’s the style that is important and the message that a book brings to you : it could be a humoristic criticism of the society or the epic tale of human values, or a philosophical consideration about the meaning of life, set in the future or in the past: that makes e think about one among the most impressive historical trilogies I’ve ever read, for example, Christos i Antichrist by Dmitrij Merezkovskij.

The literary works from Latin America created a storm in the literary world a few decades back. Works from which country /region would create such a great literary storm in near future?

 I mostly work with authors from the Balkans, at least at the moment, so that makes me an enthusiastic supporter of literary works from the Balkan region. But you can easily understand that this is neither a frank literary opinion (even if I love Balkan literature) nor an impartial one!