Today we’re thrilled to share this insightful interview between Kelly Zhang and Foreign Rights Agent Chiara Tognetti...
Kelly: Hi Chiara, nice to meet you! On behalf of Project World Kid Lit, thank you for letting me interview you. I’m really excited to get to know you and learn more about your agenting work.
Chiara: Hi Kelly, I’m a big fan of the WKL blog. When I started my agency, I wanted to learn more about what was happening in the international/translated children’s book space. I came across the WKL website and have been devouring it since. I really love WKL’s take on global literature and translation. And I’m a big fan of translators and what you do.
KZ: That’s wonderful to hear. Agreed that WKL is an invaluable resource for so many of us. Could you tell us a bit about yourself, your publishing journey, and how you became a foreign rights agent?
CT: I’m originally from Milan, Italy, and moved to London to complete my university studies. After graduating, I stayed in the UK and worked at HarperCollins first and then Walker Books for ten years, in the foreign rights team. In 2021, the opportunity came up for me to move back to Milan and start my own agency here. It has been quite the journey.
When I first started out, I asked myself: Why does the market need another rights agency? What can I contribute to it? I figured that if I was going to continue selling rights, I would want to focus on projects that would help to diversify and enrich the market.
I realised that there is still a sizeable gap between the Eastern publishers and the Western rights market. Since I majored in South Asian Studies in university, the idea of intercultural exchange/bridging has always been central to my rights selling approach, so I decided to focus on helping bridge the gap, especially on the children’s literature front.
All books displayed are editions licensed by the Chiara Tognetti Rights Agency
Images displayed courtesy of the Agency
KZ: Who do you represent? How do you network and interact with publishers, co-agents, and authors from around the world?
CT: I work with an Australian publisher, Berbay, Italian publishers, Pulce and Pane e Sale, Singaporean publisher, Marshall Cavendish, and a Scandinavian agency, Rights & Brands. I also do ad-hoc collaborations with Ghirigori, a small but mighty Italian agency.
The bulk of what I do, though, is working collaboratively with my co-agents in Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan. In many ways, I’m like their Western extension—putting out feelers to see what’s happening, what’s getting interest in certain markets, what the trends are, which authors are making it… Based on my familiarity with those markets, feedback from and knowledge of Western publishers and editors, we work together to curate a portfolio. That’s a very exciting part of my job.
In many cases, the clients I took on are people I worked with in the past, who I really admire and who I knew I’d have a positive synergy. In my previous jobs, I always worked in an office and met up with my colleagues every day, so moving away and setting up my own business was a big change. For me, it felt really important to recreate a community of professionals around me with whom I knew I could share my vision.
KZ: Have you traveled to Asia in the past? Do you know any Asian languages?
CT: When I did South Asian studies in uni, I visited India and lived there for a few months to study Hindi.
Last year, I received a fellowship for the Seoul International Book Fair, which allowed me to visit Seoul in June. It was an incredible experience, which helped me ground my growing experience in that region’s literature and culture.
KZ: How do you assess aspects of a work like pacing, tone, style, narrative voice, etc. if it’s written in a language that you can not personally read?
CT: It’s usually easier with picture books because we can get a rough translation and editors can look at the illustrations (or even Google-translate the text) to get a gist of what the book is about. But as the amount of text grows, or if the author has a specific kind of voice that doesn’t come through, it’s more difficult.
Although I don’t usually work with translators directly, I think they have a significant role in the business I am in. I actually rely on translators in a sense. The original publisher sometimes has the means to invest in a translation sample. But more often than not, the translation sample has to be funded by grants. Thus, we are often stuck with a promising manuscript, but no translation to submit to foreign publishers. If the author is well-known enough to pique an editor’s interest, then maybe we are okay. Very often, a project is rejected just on the basis of the fact that we don’t have a good translation and the editor can’t connect with the voice. If they had proper access to the original work, maybe their response would be different.
So here is my little personal campaign: I’m trying to convince the publishers I pitch to hire their own translators to do a reader’s report. So far, I’ve had my small wins. Some publishers are starting to say “you can send me the untranslated manuscript, now I have a Korean reader,” “I have a Chinese reader”… So it’s working.
I can understand: it’s an extra expense and not always justifiable for an editor to pay an external reader. But that’s definitely something that impacts on how broadly a manuscript can travel.
KZ: This actually segues nicely into my next question. What kind of interactions have you had with translators so far? Have you commissioned anyone for samples?
CT: Apart from instances where I’m pitching a title that ends up on some translator’s radar, or if it was already acquired by a publisher, I don’t really interact with translators in my current daily routine. I work mostly with the acquiring editors and publishers. Once we close a deal, it’s usually up to them to find the right translator(s) for the project.
Excitingly, several publishers I sold to had never translated from these Asian languages before, so they would often ask me if I can recommend any translators. In those cases, we would refer them to a local literary association that can provide some names.
I think connecting directly with translators could be of great help to my book scouting, because translators often have a different perspective than agents. I’m sure translators have this kind of radar/light bulb that goes on and off all the time about if something is really going to work or not in translation. I would love to be in touch with more translators to help me find those hidden gems that deserve to be translated.
KZ: You kind of touched on this before, it seems like picture books are generally easier to pitch to publishers than longer works in kidlit. What’s the situation with translated Middle Grade & YA fiction?
CT: My agency started off selling picture books, and that’s definitely my first love. But I also find that often Western publishers look for longer works to translate for curious older readers, where there is the potential for deeper cultural exploration. There is definitely an appetite for translated MG and YA books. And also crossovers.
Crossovers are books that may have been written for an adult audience, but would be of equal interest to high school and university students, young professionals, and the like. Think Catcher in the Rye and that type of coming-of-age story. There are some very interesting books coming from Asia for that segment of readers. It actually offers a lot of creative opportunities for authors whose works are more genre-bending, more twisted—those offering interesting new takes on a genre that has been done differently in the West. From what I see, Western publishers and readers really like that.
Generally speaking, I find the books that really travel well are the ones with unique qualities that justify acquiring them from a foreign market. For example, the illustrations in a picture book or the concept of a novel.
And quality has to be very high for acquiring publishers to justify the process of going through agents and translators to assess a text that they can’t read themselves, then try to make it stand out in a crowded domestic children’s book market.
It doesn’t necessarily mean the titles have to be bestsellers or won big awards. It might be something that you personally fall in love with, and see potential in, which ends up being an incredible success.
KZ: In your experience, what avenues, including events like book fairs, are most helpful for selling/exchanging rights?
CT: Yes, book fairs are super important to me. Busy schedules aside, simply bumping into people and chatting with them can make a big difference. It really strengthens the community ties and affirms that we are all in this kind of merry-go-round together.
The other thing is business trips. I have been planning focused trips to some territories I really want to visit, to see publishers in their own offices. That’s important.
And I’m really interested in fellowships, not only because they offset the cost of travel/accommodations, but they also provide amazing networking opportunities. I’ve met incredible fellows at the Seoul International Book Fair. Sharing experiences we can emerge with a different mindset.
It’s not just about business—it’s literally about perspective over the industry.
KZ: What’s your typical work day like as an agent?
CT: I reserve the morning for Asian co-agents, and my Australian and Singaporean publishers; I try to respond to as many emails as I can from them. From around 11am on, I start to look westward and in nearby regions of Europe.
During the pandemic, home has been my main workplace from the beginning of my agency, but I prefer to be surrounded by other people so I now work in a shared office with other publishing professionals. I also do zoom calls and phone calls, that I find crucial when problems arise or if there are urgent matters to discuss. I try not to leave it all to emails.
Everyday is a balancing act of many tasks as I plan my portfolio and build my business.
KZ: What’s been keeping you busy lately?
CT: On top of my regular agency work, I’m currently busy getting ready for Bologna. I am booking meetings, putting together my catalogue, assessing the materials sent in by my clients, and running ad-hoc submissions. And obviously, there’s all the excitement around when offers come through.
KZ: Can you take me through what happens after you receive an offer from a publisher? How do you negotiate a contract? What’s your role in the process?
CT: I am the mediator in the process. I see my role as not only finding good books to pitch, but also handling the negotiations and the deal. Because through my experience, I can ensure that the whole negotiation is done to top market standards for both the proprietor and the acquiring publisher, ensuring that there are no grey areas, and trying to preempt any potential problems in the contract.
There is also intercultural mediation that happens at this stage, and I do it with my co-agents when it comes to the Asian market. I know sometimes Western publishers find acquiring books from Asia difficult because of language and cultural barriers. But my co-agents and I can help them with exactly that. We explain the context of things and try to make sure everyone is happy with the deal they’re getting.
KZ: Thank you Chiara for sharing your knowledge and insights with us. It has been so wonderful chatting with you!
CT: Pleasure meeting you. Hopefully we’ll get see each other in real life. Perhaps at Bologna…?
You can learn more about the Chiara Tognetti Rights Agency at www.ctrights.com. To contact Chiara, you can email email@example.com.
Kelly Zhang is a bilingual children’s writer and literary translator (Chinese<>English) based in Ottawa, Canada. Her first English-language picture book is forthcoming with Quill Tree/HarperCollins US in early 2024. As a translator, she is interested in contemporary children’s literature and select adult literature originating from mainland China and the global Chinese diaspora. She translates PBs to MG to YA/crossovers. She is especially passionate about elevating the creative voices of young/emerging writers and women writers. When not writing or translating, she tries to keep her mischievous beagle and mercurial child out of trouble. You can connect with Kelly on Twitter @KellyZhang_YL